This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and Jerusalem: “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns.” Jeremiah 4:3 (NLT)
The ancient world was primarily agrarian and so many of the allusions and illustrations of spiritual life in the Bible are to be found on the farm. Although, as city folk, we may not be able to relate to them directly, with just a little bit of effort we will be able to understand the application.
Here in Southern California, the ground can be so hard at times, that with ordinary hand tools it can be nearly impossible to penetrate deeply. I remember trying to install a sprinkler system at our first house. It was hard work, and I had the blisters to prove it.
Beginning in chapter 2, God recalls how the people of Israel were once a young bride who loved him and was the “firstfruits of his harvest” (Jeremiah 2:1-3). However, even though God blessed them and brought them into “a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce” (Jeremiah 2:7), they did not remain faithful.
The people abandoned God, and this is the indictment: “Has any nation ever traded its gods for new ones, even though they are not gods at all? Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols!” Jeremiah 2:11 (NLT). The idea of exchanging the God who created heaven and earth for worthless idols seems absurd, but that is exactly what they did. What a waste.
The Lord goes on to say this about his people: “My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water. And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13 (CEB). Everyone knows that water is necessary for life and God’s people had God himself as their source of “living water,” but instead they chose to dig their own wells. But they failed. Jesus said, “…Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The situation is bad, but not hopeless. Beginning in chapter 3, the Lord pleads with his people to return (Jeremiah 3:1, 12, 14, 22, 4:1). The Father seeks reconciliation. Although his children have abandoned him, his heart is still toward them and he pleads, “Return to me.”
If you return, Israel, return to me, declares the Lord. If you get rid of your disgusting idols from my presence and wander no more, and if you swear by the living God in truth, justice, and righteousness, then the nations will enjoy God’s blessings; they will boast about him. Jeremiah 4:1–2 (CEB)
These declarations must not escape our attention. If we as God’s people are faithful, it will not just be ourselves, but it will be the nations who will enjoy God’s blessings. What a responsibility. What a privilege. Have we grown weary of trying to extract water from broken wells? If so, it is time to “break up our unplowed ground.”
I may not know much about farming, but this much seems obvious to me. The ground must first be prepared. The hard, impacted soil must be broken up. Rocks and other impediments must be removed. When the ground is prepared, the seed is planted and then you wait for the rain. (Artificial irrigation may not have a spiritual equivalent.)
It is worth noting that the Lord warns us “don’t plant among the thorns.” It seems obvious until we consider the Parable of the Sower. As recorded in the Gospels, the farmer seems much more haphazard in scattering the seed. It seems to go everywhere. Along the path, in the rocky ground, among the thorns and some of it ends up in good soil.
We understand that in the parable the different soils represent different conditions in the hearts of those who receive the seed of God’s word. But does that have to be the end of the story? Do people who have lives represented by hardened paths, rocky ground, or thorns have any hope of redemption?
Certainly, as with farming, less than ideal circumstances present a challenge, but it does not have to be the end of the story. Even pathways can be tilled. Rocks can be extracted from the soil and weeds and thorns can be pulled up and discarded. But how?
For a farmer, it requires passion, dedication, and hard work and it is no different for those who would win souls. If people only farmed in ideal situations, there would not be enough food to go around. We must also realize the damage that “the world, the flesh, and the devil” have done in people’s lives.
Jesus’ ministry is filled with examples where he ministered to those whose lives were less than ideal. He went out of his way and he took his time to engage people that others overlooked or ignored. It is not good enough to look only at those whose lives represent “good soil.”
The rain is coming. Let us first look at our own hearts and lives and make the assessment of how ready we are to reap a harvest. The breaking up of the hard ground is accomplished through repentance. Hardening can occur so gradually that we might not even notice. There is the deceitfulness of sin and worries of life, along with an enemy who is ready to snatch away the precious seed of the word of God.
The rain is coming and for us to be able to encourage others and be useful, to be fruitful and productive, we must “break up the unplowed ground.” “Sow righteousness, reap love. It’s time to till the ready earth, it’s time to dig in with God, Until he arrives with righteousness ripe for harvest.” Hosea 10:12 (The Message)