And to Adam he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying…
Nature is a mirror in which we behold both the skill and character of the Divine Artificer; but the reflected image — owing to the peculiarity of the material, or of the angle of vision — is not always a true one. In every part of creation we find examples of wasted energy and frustrated design; foundations laid, but the building never completed; the skeleton formed, but never clothed with living flesh; an unceasing production of means that are never used, embryos that are never vivified, germs that are never developed. We cannot, however, in such things, measure the Divine proceedings by our human standards; for, taking a larger view of the subject, we find that the imperfection of particular parts is necessary for the perfection of the whole scheme, and all instances of failure are made to work together for the general good. It is to this tendency of nature to overflow its banks, to attempt more than she can execute, to begin more than she can finish, that we owe our own daily bread. For if the corn plant produced only a sufficient number of seeds barely to perpetuate the species, there would be no annual miracle of the multiplication of the loaves; and man, always at the point of starvation, could neither replenish and subdue the earth, nor accomplish any of the great purposes of his existence. Thorns are among the most striking examples of failure on the part of nature to reach an ideal perfection. They are not essential organs, perfect parts, but in every case altered or abortive structures. They are formed in two different ways. When the hairs that occur on the stem of a plant are enlarged and hardened, they form rigid opaque conical processes such as those of the rose and the bramble. The so-called thorns of these plants are not, however, true thorns, but prickles, for they have only a superficial origin, being produced by the epidermis only, and having no connection with the woody tissue. They may be easily separated from the stem, without leaving any mark or laceration behind. True thorns or spines, on the contrary, have a deeper origin and cannot be so removed. They are not compound hardened hairs, but abnormal conditions of buds and branches. A branch, owing to poverty of soil, or unfavourable circumstances, does not develop itself; it produces no twigs or leaves; it therefore assumes the spinous or thorny form, terminating in a more or less pointed extremity, as in the common hawthorn. In some cases, as in the sloe, we see the transformation going on at different stages; some branches bearing leaves on their lower portions and terminating in spines. A bud by some means or other becomes abortive; there is a deficiency of nutriment to stimulate its growth; it does not develop into blossom and fruit. Its growing point, therefore, is hardened; its scaly envelopes are consolidated into woody fibre, and the whole bud becomes a sharp thorn. Leaves are also occasionally arrested in their development and changed into thorns, as in the stipules of Robinia, of the common barberry, and of several species of acacia. The middle nerve of the leaf in a few instances absorbs to itself all the parenchyma or green cellular substance, and therefore hardens into a thorn; and in the holly all the veins of the leaves become spiny. In all these cases thorns are not necessary, but accidental appendages, growths arrested and transformed by unfavourable circumstances; and nature, by the law of compensation, converts them into means of defence to the plants on which they are produced — not very effective defences in most instances, but still analogous to the spines of the hedgehog and the quills of the porcupine, and typical of the plan according to which nature supplies some method of preservation to every living thing that is liable to be injured. By cultivation many thorny plants may be deprived of their spines. The apple, the pear, and the plum tree, in a wild state are thickly covered with thorns; but when reared in the shelter of the garden, and stimulated by all the elements most favourable for their full development, they lose these thorns, which become changed into leafy branches, and blossoming and fruit-bearing buds. In this way man acquires the rights assigned to him by God, and nature yields to him the pledges of his sovereignty, and reaches her own ideal of beauty and perfection by his means. But when, on the other hand, he ceases to dress and keep the garden, nature regains her former supremacy, and brings back the cultivated plants to a wilder and more disordered condition than at first. A garden abandoned to neglect, owing to the absence or the carelessness of the owner, presents a drearier spectacle than the untamed wilderness; everything bursting out into rank luxuriance; stems originally smooth covered with prickles, and buds that would have burst into blossoms changed into thorns. It is a remarkable circumstance that whenever man cultivates nature, and then abandons her to her own unaided energies, the result is far worse than if he had never attempted to improve her at all. No country in the world, now that it has been so long let out of cultivation, has such a variety and abundance of thorny plants, as the once-favoured heritage of God's people, the land flowing with milk and honey. Travellers call the Holy Land "a land of thorns." This tendency of nature to produce a greater variety of thorny plants in ground let out of cultivation, as illustrated by the present vegetation of Palestine, throws considerable light upon the curse pronounced upon Adam when he had sinned: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee." Many individuals believe that we have in this curse the origin of thorns and thistles — that they were previously altogether unknown in the economy of nature. It is customary to picture Eden as a paradise of immaculate loveliness, in which everything was perfect, and all the objects of nature harmonized with the holiness and happiness of our first parents. The ground yielded only beautiful flowers and fruitful trees — every plant reached the highest ideal of form, colour, and usefulness of which it was capable. Preachers and poets in all ages have made the most of this beautiful conception. It is not, however, Scripture or scientific truth, but human fancy. Nowhere in the singularly measured and reticent account given in Genesis of man's first home do we find anything, if rightly interpreted, that encourages us to form such an ideal picture of it. It was admirably adapted to man's condition, but it was not in all respects ideally perfect. The vegetation that came fresh from God's hand, and bore the impress of His seal that it was all very good, was created for death and reproduction; for it was called into being as "the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree bearing fruit, whose seed was in itself." We must remember, too, that it was before and not after the Fall that Adam was put into the garden to "dress and keep it." The very fact that such a process of dressing and keeping was necessary, indicates in the clearest manner that nature was not at first ideally perfect. The skill and toil of man called in, presuppose that there were luxuriant growths to be pruned, tendencies of vegetation to be checked or stimulated, weeds to be extirpated, tender flowers to be trained and nursed, and fruits to be more richly developed. The primeval blessing consisted in replenishing the earth and subduing it; and in no other way could man subdue the earth than by cultivating it. But the process of cultivation of necessity implies the existence of thorns and weeds. For in cultivating any spot we have to contend against the great law of nature which spreads every plant as widely as its constitution will permit. What then, we may ask, is implied in the language of the curse, "Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee"? The Hebrew form of the curse implies, not that a new thing should happen, but that an old thing should be intensified and exhibited in new relations. Just as the rainbow, which was formerly a mere natural phenomenon, became after the flood the symbol of the great world covenant; just as death, which during all the long ages of geology had been a mere phase of life, the termination of existence, became after the Fall the most bitter and poisonous fruit of sin: so thorns, which in the innocent Eden were the effects of a law of vegetation, became significant intimations of man's deteriorated condition. It is in relation to man, solely, that we are to look at the curse; for though the production of briers and thorn-bearing plants may add to man's labour and distress, it supplies food and enjoyment for multitudes of inferior creatures, and especially birds and insects. Man, in Eden, was placed in the most favourable circumstances. It was a garden specially prepared by God Himself for his habitation, and stocked with all that he could reasonably require. It was to be a pattern after which his own efforts in improving the world were to be modelled — a coign of vantage, a select and blessed centre, from which he was by degrees to subdue the wild prodigality of nature, and make of the earth an extended paradise. And, therefore, though the native tendencies of vegetation were not altogether eradicated, they were so far restrained that the dressing and keeping of the garden furnished him with healthful employment for all his powers of body and mind, and conferred upon him the dignity of developing the perfection, which potentially, though not actually, existed in nature, and thus becoming a fellow worker with God. But when excluded from Eden, he had to encounter, with powers greatly weakened by sin, the full, merciless force of nature's untamed energies; energies, too, excited into greater opposition against him by his own efforts to subdue them. For, as I have already said, the very process of cultivation, while it removes the thorns and briers of the soil, will, if it be given up, produce a greater variety and luxuriance of thorns and thistles than the ground originally produced. The very fertility imparted to the soil would, if allowed to nourish its native vegetation, result in a greater rankness of useless growth. And therefore the tiller of the ground must never relax his efforts. I believe that the thorns and briers thus introduced in connection with the human epoch, but before the Fall, were anticipative consequences, prophetic symbols of that Fall. We err greatly, if we suppose that sin came into the world unexpectedly — produced a sudden shock and dislocation throughout nature, and took God as it were by surprise — that the atonement was a Divine after thought to remedy a defect in God's creative foresight and natural law. He who sees the end from the beginning, knew that such a mournful moral lapse would happen — that Creation would fall with its king and high priest, and had therefore made preparations for it, not only, in the plans of heaven, but also in the objects and arrangements of earth. There are many things in the scheme of nature which have a reference to the fact of sin before it became a fact; which remind us unmistakeably that God, in fitting up this world to be the habitation of a moral being who should fall through sin, and be restored through suffering, had filled it with types and symbols of that fall and that restoration. When God said to Adam, "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee," He acted according to a plan uniformly pursued by Him in all His subsequent dispensations and dealings with men; by which in gracious condescension to our two-fold nature, and to the carnal and spiritual classes of mankind, He associated the natural with the spiritual, gave the outward sign of the inward spiritual truth. He set the field of nature with types of degeneracy and arrested growth, which should symbolize to man the consequences upon his own nature of his own sin. What then are the thorns, looking at them in this typical aspect, produced by the sinful, accursed soil of man's heart and life?
1. Labour is one of the thorns of the curse. "All things," says the wise man, "are full of labour." Without it life cannot be maintained. Unremitting labour from day to day and from year to year — except in the case of a few races into whose lap nature pours, almost unsolicited, her prodigal stores, and who therefore continue children in body and mind all their lives — is the condition upon which we receive our daily bread. Much of this labour is indeed healthy. In work alone is health and life; and it is for work that God has created faculties. But how much of it, nevertheless, is terrible drudgery, effectually hindering the development of the higher faculties of the mind and soul, wearisome effort, vanity, and vexation of spirit! How much of failure is there in it, of disproportion between desires and results! How much of it is like rolling the fabled stone of Sisyphus up the steep hill only to roll down again immediately — like weaving ropes of sand! How often does the heart despair amid the unprofitableness of all its labour under the sun! We plough our fields and sow our seed; but instead of a bountiful harvest to reward us, too often comes up a crop of thorns and thistles, to wound the toiling hand and pierce the aching brow.
2. Then there is the thorn of pain — the darkest mystery of life. Some maintain that pain exists by necessity, that it has its root in the essential order of the world. It is the thorn that guards the rose of pleasure — the sting that protects the honey of life. But ask any martyr to physical suffering if that explanation satisfies him. Why, if the purpose of pain is a purely benevolent one, should it be so excessive? Why should it rend and rack the frame with agony? Why should it last so long? Methinks, if pain were meant merely to warn us of the presence of evil, and guard us against it, that a much less degree and a shorter duration of it would suffice. The Bible, and the Bible alone, tells us the cause and the origin of it. It tells us that it is nothing else than a witness for sin — the thorn which man's body, weakened and palsied by sin, produces. Man feels in his body the physical consequences of the death which his soul has died. He has the thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him, that he may be reminded continually of his sin and mortality, and be induced to walk softly all the days of his life.
3. Then there is the thorn of sorrow. Every branch of the human tree may be arrested and transformed by some casualty into a thorn of sorrow. The staff of friendship upon which we lean may break and pierce the hand. The bud of love which we cherish in our heart, and feed with the life blood of our affections, may be blighted by the chill of death, and become a thorn to wound us grievously. That civilization which has lessened physical troubles, has rendered us more susceptible to mental ones; and side by side with its manifold sources of enjoyment, are opened up manifold sources of suffering. And why is all this? Why is man, so highly cultivated, the possessor of such vast resources of science and art, still born to trouble as the sparks fly upward? There is no possible way of accounting for it save by the primeval curse: "In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life."
4. And lastly, as the climax of all life's evils, is death, the prospect and the endurance of it, from both of which our whole nature, originally made in the image of God, and destined to live forever, revolts with the utmost abhorrence. Such are the thorns which man's nature, under the withering, distorting curse of sin, produces. Cursed is the ground within, as well as the ground without, for man's sake; and in labour, in pain, in sorrow, and in death, does he eat of its fruit. From all these thorns Jesus came to deliver us. The second Adam in the poverty of His condition has recovered for us all that the first Adam in the plenitude of his blessings lost. The Roman soldiers platted a crown of thorns and put it upon the head of Jesus; but they little knew the significance of the act. Upon the august brow of man's Surety and Substitute was thus placed in symbol, what was done in spiritual reality, a chaplet woven of those very thorns which the ground, cursed for man's sake, produced. None of these thorns grew in the sacred soil of Jesus' heart. But He who knew no sin was made sin for us. He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities. He could, no doubt, by the exercise of His almighty power, remove the thorns of man's life. He who created the world by a word, had only to command, and it should be done. But not in this way could the necessities of the case be met. It was no mere arbitrary power that called the thorns into existence; it was justice and judgment: and, therefore, mere arbitrary power could not eradicate them; it required mercy and truth. And mercy and truth could be reconciled with justice and judgment only by the obedience and sacrifice of the Son of God. Jesus had, therefore, to wear the thorns which man's sin had developed, in order that man might enjoy the peaceful fruits of righteousness which Christ's atonement had produced. And what is the result? By wearing these thorns He has blunted them, plucked them out of our path, out of our heart, out of our life. By enduring them He conquered them. The crown of pain became the crown of triumph; and the submission to ignominy and suffering became the assertion and establishment of a sovereignty over every form of suffering. Evil is now a vanquished power. Every woe bears upon it the inscription "overcome." He bore the thorny crown of labour, and labour is now a sacred thing, a precious discipline, a merciful education. It is the lowest step of the ladder by which man ascends the Edenic height from which he fell. He wore the thorny crown of pain, and pain is now robbed of the element that exasperates our nature against it. By His own example He teaches us that we must be made perfect through suffering; and knowing this, we do not feel pain to be less, but we feel a strength and a patience which enable us to rise superior to it. As the Prince of sufferers, He wore the thorny crown of sorrow, and He has made, in the experience of His afflicted ones, that abortive thorn to produce the blossom of holiness and the fruit of righteousness. Sorrow is no more to the Christian the curse of Adam, but the cross of Christ. It is the crown and badge of his royal dignity, the proof of Divine sonship. And, lastly, He wore the thorny crown of death; and therefore He says, "If a man keep My sayings, he shall not see death." He has indeed to pass through the state, but the bitterness of death for him is past. He has only to finish his course with joy; to fall asleep in Jesus; to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
(H. Macmillan, LL. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
WEB: To Adam he said, "Because you have listened to your wife's voice, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground for your sake. In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.