Jeremiah 17:6
For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good comes; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(6) Like the heath in the desert.—The word rendered heath is, literally, bare or naked, and as such is translated by “destitute” in Psalm 102:17. That meaning has accordingly been given to it here by some recent commentators. No picture of desolation could be more complete than that of a man utterly destitute, yet inhabiting the “parched places of the wilderness.” All the older versions, however, including the Targum, and some of the best modern (e.g. Ewald), take the word as describing the “heath” or other like shrubs standing alone in a barren land. A like word with the same meaning is found in Jeremiah 48:6, and stands in Arabic for the “juniper.” Both views are tenable, but the latter, as being a bolder similitude, and balancing the comparison to a “tree planted by the waters” in Jeremiah 17:8, is more after the manner of a poet-prophet. There is something weak in saying “A man shall be like a destitute man.” The word rendered “desert” (arabah) is applied specially to the Jordan valley (sometimes, indeed, to its more fertile parts), and its connection here with the “salt land” points to the wild, barren land of the Jordan as it flows into the Dead Sea (Deuteronomy 29:23).

Shall not see when good cometh.—The words describe the yearning that has been so often disappointed that at last, when the brighter day dawns, it is blind to the signs of its approach. It comes too late, as rain falls too late on the dead or withered heath.

Jeremiah

THE HEATH IN THE DESERT AND THE TREE BY THE RIVER

Jeremiah 17:6
, Jeremiah 17:8.

The prophet here puts before us two highly finished pictures. In the one, the hot desert stretches on all sides. The fierce ‘sunbeams like swords’ slay every green thing. The salt particles in the soil glitter in the light. No living creature breaks the melancholy solitude. It is a ‘waste land where no one came, or hath come since the making of the world.’ Here and there a stunted, grey, prickly shrub struggles to live, and just manages not to die. But it has no grace of leaf, nor profitableness of fruit; and it only serves to make the desolation more desolate.

The other carries us to some brimming river, where everything lives because water has come. The pictures are coloured by Eastern experience. For in those lands more than beneath our humid skies and weaker sunshine, the presence or absence of running water makes the difference between barrenness and fertility. Dipping their boughs in the sparkling current, and driving their roots through the moist soil, the bordering trees lift aloft their pride of foliage and bear fruits in their season.

So, says Jeremiah, the two pictures represent two sets of men; the one, he who diverts from their true object his heart-capacities of love and trust, and clings to creatures and to men, ‘making flesh his arm and departing from the living God’; the other, he who leans the whole weight of his needs and cares and sins and sorrows upon God. We can make choice of which shall be the object of our trust, and according as we choose the one or the other, the experience of these vivid pictures will be ours.

Let me briefly, then, draw out the points of contrast in these two companion sketches.

I. The one is in the desert, the other by the river.

Underneath the pictures there lies this thought, that the direction of a man’s trust determines the whole cast of his life, because it determines, as it were, the soil in which he grows. We can alter our habitat. The plant is fixed; but ‘I saw men as trees-yes! but as ‘trees walking.’ We can walk, and can settle where we shall be rooted and whence we shall draw our inspiration, our confidence, our security. The man that chooses-for it is a matter of choice-to trust in any creature thereby wills, though he does not know it, that he shall dwell in a ‘salt land and not inhabited.’ The man that chooses to cast his whole self into the arms of God, and in a paroxysm of self-distrust to realise the divine helpfulness and presence, that man will soon know that he is ‘planted by the river.’

Now, the poor, little dusty shrub in the desert, whose very leaves have been modified into prickles, is fit for the desert, and is as much at home there as are the willows by the water-courses with their lush vegetation in their moist bed. But if a man makes that fatal choice which so-many of us are making, of shutting out God from his confidence and his love, and squandering these upon earth and upon creatures, he is as fatally out of harmony with the place which he has chosen for himself, and as much away from his natural soil, as a tropical plant would be amongst the snows of Arctic glaciers, or a water-lily in the Sahara.

Considering all that I am and need, what and where is my true home and the soil in which I can grow securely, and fear no evil? Brethren, there is only one answer to that question. The very make of a man’s spirit points to God, and to God alone, as the natural place for him to root and grow in. You, I, the poorest and humblest of men, will never be right, never feel that we are in our native soil, and compassed with the appropriate surroundings, until we have laid our hearts and our hands on the breast of God, and rested ourselves on Him. Not more surely do gills and fins proclaim that the creature that has them is meant to roam through the boundless ocean, nor the anatomy and wings of the bird witness more plainly to its destination to soar in the open heavens than the make of your spirits testifies that God, and none less or lower, is your portion. We are built for God, and unless we recognise and act upon that conviction, we are like the prickly shrub in the desert, whatever good may be around us; and if we do recognise and act upon it, whatever parched ground may seem to stretch on all sides, there will be soil moist enough for us to draw refreshment and vitality from it.

If that be so, brethren, what insanity the lives of multitudes of us are! As well might bees try to suck honey from a vase of wax flowers as we to draw what we need from creatures, from ourselves, from visible and material things.

What would you business men think of some one who went and sold out all his stock of Government or other sound securities, and then flung the proceeds down a hole in South Africa, out of which no gold will ever come? He would be about as wise as are the people who fancy that these hearts of theirs will ever be at home except they find a home in God.

Where else will you find love that will never fail, nor change, nor die? Where else will you find an object for the intellect that will yield inexhaustible material of contemplation and delight? Where else infallible direction for the will? Where else shall weakness find unfailing strength, or sorrow, adequate consolation, or hope, certain fulfilment, or fear, a safe hiding-place? Nowhere besides. Oh! then, brethren, do, I beseech you, turn away your heart’s confidence and love from earth and creatures; for until the roots of your life go down into God, and you draw your life from Him, you are not in your right soil.

II. The one can take in no real good; the other can fear no evil.

One verse of our text says, ‘He shall not see when good cometh’; the other one, according to our Authorised Version, ‘He shall not see when heat cometh.’ But a very slight alteration of one word in the original gives a better reading, which is adopted in the Revised Version, where we have, ‘and shall not fear when heat cometh.’ That alteration is obviously correct, because there follows immediately a parallel clause, ‘and shall not be careful’-or anxious-’in the year of drought.’ In both these clauses the metaphor of the tree is a little let go; and the man who is signified by it comes rather more to the front than in the remainder of the picture. But that is quite natural.

So look at these two simple thoughts for a moment. He whose trust is set upon creatures is thereby disabled from recognising what is his highest good. His judgment is perverted. There is the explanation of the fact that men are contented with the partial and evanescent blessedness that may be drawn from human loves and companionship and material things. It is because they have gone blind, and the false direction of their confidence, has put out their eyes. And if any of my hearers are living careless about God, and all that comes from Him, and perfectly contented with that which they find in this visible, diurnal sphere, that is not because they have the good which they need, but because they do not know that good when they see it, and have lost the power of discerning what is really for their benefit and blessedness.

There is nothing sadder in this world than the conspiracy into which men seem to have entered to ignore the highest good, and to profess themselves contented with the lowest. I remember a rough parable of Luther’s-the roughness of which may be pardoned for the force and vividness of it-which bears on this matter. He tells how a company of swine were offered all manner of dainty and refined foods, and how, with a unanimous swinish grunt, they answered that they preferred the warm, reeking ‘grains’ from the mash-tub. The illustration is coarse, but it is not an unfair representation of the choice that some of us are making.

‘He cannot see when good cometh.’ God comes, and I would rather have some more money. God comes, and I prefer some woman’s love. God comes, and I would rather have a prosperous business. God comes, and I prefer beer. So I might go the whole round. The man that cannot see good when it is there before his face, because the false direction of his confidence has blinded his eyes, cannot open his heart to it. It comes, but it does not come in. It surrounds him, but it does not enter into him. You are plunged, as it were, in a sea of possible felicity, which will be yours if your heart’s direction is towards God, and the surrounding ocean of blessedness has as little power to fill your heart as the sea has to enter some hermetically sealed flask, dropped into the middle of the Atlantic. ‘He cannot see when good cometh.’ Blind, blind, blind! are multitudes of us.

Turn to the other side. ‘He shall not fear when heat cometh,’ which is evil in those Eastern lands, ‘and shall not be careful in the year of drought.’ The tree, that sends its roots towards a river that never fails, does not suffer when all the land is parched. The man who has driven his roots into God, and is drawing from that deep source what is needful for his life and fertility, has no occasion to dread any evil, nor to gnaw his heart with anxiety as to what he is to do in parched days. Troubles may come, but they do not go deeper than the surface. It may be all cracked and caked and dry, ‘a thirsty land where no water is,’ and yet deep down there may be moisture and coolness.

Faith, which is trust, and fear are opposite poles. If a man has the one, he can scarcely have the other in vigorous operation. He that has his trust set upon God does not need to dread anything except the weakening or the paralysing of that trust; for so long as it lasts it is a talisman which changes evil into good, the true philosopher’s stone which transmutes the baser metals into gold; and, so long as it lasts, God’s shield is round him and no evil can befall him.

Brethren, if our trust is in God, it is unworthy of it and of us to fear, for all things are His, and there is no evil in evil as men call it, so long as it does not draw away our hearts from our Father and our Hope. Therefore, he that fears let him trust; he that trusts let him not be afraid. He that sets his heart and anchors his hopes of safety on any except God, let him be afraid, for he is in a very stern world, and if he is not fearful he is a fool.

So the direction of our trust, if it is right, shuts all real evil out from us, and if it is wrong, shuts us out from all real good.

III. The one is bare, the other clothed with the beauty of foliage.

The word which is translated ‘heat’ has a close connection with, if it does not literally mean, ‘naked’ or ‘bare.’ Probably, as I have said, it designates some inconspicuously leaved desert shrub, the particular species not being ascertainable or a matter of any consequence. Leaves, in Scripture, have a recognised symbolical meaning. ‘Nothing but leaves’ in the story of the fig-tree meant only beautiful outward appearance, with no corresponding outcome of goodness of heart, in the shape of fruit. So I may venture here to draw a distinction between leafage and fruit, and say that the one points rather to a man’s character and conduct as lovely in appearance, and in the other as morally good and profitable.

This is the lesson of these two clauses-misdirected confidence in creatures strips a man of much beauty of character, and true faith in God adorns a soul with a leafy vesture of loveliness. Now, I have no doubt that there start up in your minds at once two objections to that statement: first, that a great many godless men do present fair and attractive features of character; and secondly, that a great many Christian men do not. I admit both things frankly, and yet I say that, for the highest good, the perfect crowning beauty of any human character, this is needed, that it should cling to God. ‘Whatsoever things are lovely and of good report’ lack their supreme excellence, the diamond on the top of the royal crown, the glittering gold on the summit of the campanile, unless there is in them a distinct reference to God.

I believe that I am speaking to some who would not profess themselves to be religious men, and who yet are truly desirous of cultivating in their character the Fair and the Good. To them I would venture to say- brethren, you will never be so completely, so refinedly, so truly, graceful as you might be, unless the roots of your character ‘are hid with Christ in God.’

‘A servant with this clause

Makes drudgery divine,’


said good old George Herbert. And any act, however humble, on which the light from God falls, will gleam with a lustre else unattainable, like some piece of broken glass in the furrows of a ploughed field.

Sure I am that if we Christian people had a deeper faith, we should have fairer lives. And I beseech you, my fellow-believers in Jesus Christ, not to supply the other side with arguments against Christianity, by showing that it is possible for a man to say and to suppose that he sets his heart on God, and yet to bear but little leafage of beauty or grace of character. Goodness is beauty; beauty is goodness. Both are to be secured by communion and union with Him who is fairer than the children of men. Dip your roots into the fountain of life-it is the fountain of beauty as well as of life, and your lives will be green.

IV. Lastly, the one is sterile, the other fruitful.

I admit, as before, that this statement often seems to be contradicted, both by the good works of godless men, and by the bad works of godly ones. But for all that, I would urge you to consider that the only works of men worth calling ‘fruit,’ if regard is had to their capacities, relations, and obligations, are those done as the outcome and consequence of hearts trusting in the Lord. The rest of the man’s activities may be busy and multiplied, and, from the point of view of a godless morality, many may be fair and good; but if we think of him as being destined, as his chief end, ‘to glorify God, and {so} to enjoy Him for ever,’ what correspondence between such a creature and acts that are done without reference to God can there ever be? They are not worth calling ‘fruit.’ At the most they are ‘wild grapes,’ and there comes a time when they will be tested and the axe laid to the root of the trees, and these imperfect deeds will shrivel up and disappear.

Trust will certainly be fruitful. In so saying we are upon Christian ground, which declares that the outcome of faith is conduct in conformity with the will of Him in whom we trust, and that the productive principle of all good in man is confidence in God manifest to us in Jesus Christ.

So we have not to begin with work; we have to begin with character. ‘Make the tree good,’ and its fruit will be good. Faith will give power to bring forth such fruit; and faith will set agoing the motive of love which will produce it. Thus, dear brethren, we come back to this-the prime thing about a man is the direction which his trust takes. Is it to God? Then the tree is good; and its fruit will be good too. If you will trust yourselves to ‘God manifest in the flesh,’ to Jesus Christ and His work for you and in you, then you will be as if ‘planted by the rivers of water,’ you will be able to receive into yourselves, and will receive, all good, and be masters of all evil, will exhibit graces of character else impossible, and will bring forth ‘fruit that shall remain.’ Separated from Him we are nothing, and can bring forth nothing that will stand the light of that last moment.

Brother, turn your trust to that dear Lord, and then you will have your ‘fruit unto holiness, and the end shall be everlasting life,’ when the transplanting season comes, and they that have been ‘planted in the house of the Lord’ below shall ‘flourish in the courts of our God’ above, and grow more green and fruitful, beside the ‘river of the water of life that proceedeth from the throne of God and of the Lamb.’17:5-11 He who puts confidence in man, shall be like the heath in a desert, a naked tree, a sorry shrub, the product of barren ground, useless and worthless. Those who trust to their own righteousness and strength, and think they can do without Christ, make flesh their arm, and their souls cannot prosper in graces or comforts. Those who make God their Hope, shall flourish like a tree always green, whose leaf does not wither. They shall be fixed in peace and satisfaction of mind; they shall not be anxious in a year of drought. Those who make God their Hope, have enough in him to make up the want of all creature-comforts. They shall not cease from yielding fruit in holiness and good works. The heart, the conscience of man, in his corrupt and fallen state, is deceitful above all things. It calls evil good, and good evil; and cries peace to those to whom it does not belong. Herein the heart is desperately wicked; it is deadly, it is desperate. The case is bad indeed, if the conscience, which should set right the errors of other faculties, is a leader in the delusion. We cannot know our own hearts, nor what they will do in an hour of temptation. Who can understand his errors? Much less can we know the hearts of others, or depend upon them. He that believes God's testimony in this matter, and learns to watch his own heart, will find this is a correct, though a sad picture, and learns many lessons to direct his conduct. But much in our own hearts and in the hearts of others, will remain unknown. Yet whatever wickedness there is in the heart, God sees it. Men may be imposed upon, but God cannot be deceived. He that gets riches, and not by right, though he may make them his hope, never shall have joy of them. This shows what vexation it is to a worldly man at death, that he must leave his riches behind; but though the wealth will not follow to another world, guilt will, and everlasting torment. The rich man takes pains to get an estate, and sits brooding upon it, but never has any satisfaction in it; by sinful courses it comes to nothing. Let us be wise in time; what we get, let us get it honestly; and what we have, use it charitably, that we may be wise for eternity.Like the heath - Or, "like a destitute man" Psalm 102:17. The verbs "he shall see" (or fear) and "shall inhabit" plainly show that a man is here meant and not a plant.6. heath—In Ps 102:17; Isa 32:11; Hab 3:9, the Hebrew is translated, "bare," "naked," "destitute"; but as the parallel in Jer 17:8 is "tree," some plant must be meant of which this is the characteristic epithet (Jer 48:6, Margin), "a naked tree." Robinson translates, "the juniper tree," found in the Arabah or Great Valley, here called "the desert," south of the Dead Sea. The "heath" was one of the plants, according to Pliny (13.21; 16.26), excluded from religious uses, because it has neither fruit nor seed, and is neither sown nor planted.

not see … good—(Job 20:17).

salt land—(De 29:23), barren ground.

The sum is, he shall not thrive, nor prosper, but

be like the heath, by which is meant some barren shrub or tree, about which the various guesses of interpreters (which the reader that is curious may find in the English Annotations) are but uncertainties, and this planted in the wilderness too, which is a barren soil, which tree or plant is never the better for all the moisture that comes from heaven, nor for all the beams of the sun; but stands in a dry and salt place, not inhabited by people. The scope is, to let us know that sinners who depart from God, and do not place their confidence in him in times of danger, but trust in creature aids and assistances, shall miss of these very good things which they might have had if they had expected them from him, from whom alone they could have been obtained. For he shall be like the heath in the desert,.... The Vulgate Latin version renders it, "myrice": and so the Latin interpreter of the Targum; but the word that paraphrase makes use of according to R. Hai, mentioned by Kimchi, signifies something that is thorny without, and eatable within; but this is not likely to be intended here. The Septuagint version renders it, "wild myrice"; it seems to be the same that is called "erice", or "ling", and "heath"; which delights to grow in wild and waste places; hence such with us are called "heaths", whether this grows upon them or not. It is a low shrub, fruitless and useless; and, because neither bears fruit nor seed, is reckoned by Pliny (o) among unhappy plants, and such as are condemned or forbid religious uses; and very fit to represent such persons as truest in men and in themselves, and not in the Lord:

and shall not see when good cometh; perceive or receive any advantage by rain coming upon it; as such persons do not receive any good by the pure ministration of the word, compared to rain; and so the self-righteous Jews did not see when the Messiah came, who is goodness itself; nor see him, and embrace him, nor his righteousness; but rejected him and that; went about to establish their own, and did not submit to his; nor did they attain to righteousness, or enjoy eternal life; as is the case of all self-justiciaries:

but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land, and not inhabited: which became literally true of the land of Judea, for the rejection of the Messiah, and trust in themselves; see Deuteronomy 29:23 and may fitly represent the barren pastures of a man's own works of righteousness, which such as trust in themselves feed upon. All the characters are expressive of barrenness, as a wilderness, places parched with heat, and where salt is; for, as Pliny (p) says, where salt is found, it is barren, and produces nothing.

(o) Nat. Hist. l. 13. c. 21. & l. 16. c. 26. & l. 24. c. 9. (p) Nat. Hist. l. 31. c. 7.

For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
6. the heath] mg. a tamarisk. The Hebrew substantive occurs again in Jeremiah 48:9 and means in both cases a juniper tree, probably of the dwarf variety (so Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 358), often cropped by the wild goats of the desert and thus stripped and desolate. In Psalm 102:17 (its only remaining occurrence), it means “destitute,” referring there also to Israel in exile.Verse 6. - Like the heath in the desert; as forlorn as some well-known desert plant. But which plant? St. Jerome explains, "Et erit quasi myrice ['tamarisk'], quae Hebraice dicitur Aroer (?) sire, at interpretatus est Syrus, lignum infructuosum." The versions agree in supposing the comparison to be to a plant; and a very similar word in Arabic (ghargar) means the mountain juniper; Tristram, the dwarf juniper. Most, however, take the word to be an adjective equivalent to "destitute." Dr. Thomson tells a story of a poor destitute woman he found in the desert (comp. Jeremiah 48:6 - the form there is Aroer, here it is 'ar'ar; Psalm 102:18). Shall not see; i.e. shall not perceive, or feel any evil consequences (comp. Isaiah 44:16, "I have seen the fire," equivalent to "feel the flame"). A salt land; i.e. one entirely barren (comp. Deuteronomy 29:23). In his cry to the Lord: My strength...in the day of trouble, which agrees closely with Psalm 28:8; Psalm 59:17; Psalm 18:3, Jeremiah utters not merely his own feelings, but those which would animate every member of his people. In the time of need the powerlessness of the idols to help, and so their vanity, becomes apparent. Trouble therefore drives to God, the Almighty Lord and Ruler of the world, and forces to bend under His power. The coming tribulation is to have this fruit not only in the case of the Israelites, but also in that of the heathen nations, so that they shall see the vanity of the idolatry they have inherited from their fathers, and be converted to the Lord, the only true God. How this knowledge is to be awakened in the heathen, Jeremiah does not disclose; but it may be gathered from Jeremiah 16:15, from the deliverance of Israel, there announced, out of the heathen lands into which they had been cast forth. By this deliverance the heathen will be made aware both of the almighty power of the God of Israel and of the nothingness of their own gods. On הבל cf. Jeremiah 2:5; and with "none that profiteth," cf. Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 14:22. In Jeremiah 16:20 the prophet confirms what the heathen have been saying. The question has a negative force, as is clear from the second clause. In Jeremiah 16:21 we have the Lord's answer to the prophets' confession in Jeremiah 16:19. Since the Jews are so blinded that they prefer vain idols to the living God, He will this time so show them His hand and His strength in that foretold chastisement, that they shall know His name, i.e., know that He alone is God in deed and in truth. Cf. Ezekiel 12:15; Exodus 3:14.
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