The word conjures images of teeming life—a verdant rain forest, a variegated coral reef or a savannah swarming with wild creatures. A flourishing environment is the natural outcome of conditions that allow life to surge forth. It’s the breathtaking artistry of the Creator, who spoke the universe into thriving, pulsating reality.
The poem from Jeremiah 17 paints a word picture of flourishing life contrasted with scarcity and isolation. The “tree planted by water” is a familiar image that echoes Psalm 1. In both passages, the person who trusts in Yahweh is like the tree that produces fruit whether there is rain or drought. How is this so? The secret of its flourishing is below the surface, in the underground darkness where the tree
“thrusts out its roots toward the stream. When the heat comes, it has nothing to fear; its leaves remain luxurious.” (v. 8) (J. A. Thompson translation)
When I read these verses, I think of the giant cottonwood trees that inhabit the river bottoms of my native Kansas City region or the massive monkey pod trees of my adopted home in Hawaii. When hiking or exploring, these trees will stop you in your tracks. They grow to enormous height and circumference, with branches spanning over a hundred feet. They become landmarks where they grow, providing shade, shelter and sustenance to the ecosystems of which they’re a part.
This is the image of the life that is faithful to the covenant with Yahweh. The one who lives by trust in God is tapping into a deep source of nourishment and health that leads to fruitfulness in both good times and hard times.
A flourishing life with God is a radical life. Just as the radix (root) of the tree reaches toward the stream, the radix (heart) of a person reaches toward God in total trust and confidence. We commonly use the word “radical” to describe something extreme or revolutionary. But, in the context of Jeremiah 17, the radical character of a trustful life with God is normal, healthy and flourishing.
The antithesis to the well-rooted tree is the “desert shrub,” that suffers in a wasteland where there is not enough rain and no stream nearby. The shrub inhabits “the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” (v. 6) Who is the person that is likened to the desert shrub? It’s the one who places trust in people rather than Yahweh; it’s those “who make mere flesh their strength.” (v. 5) The implication is clear—those who rely on human resources and wisdom are like a shrub with roots that reach nowhere. The Prophet has a pessimistic view of human nature apart from covenant relationship with God: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (v. 9)
As Walter Brueggemann attests, the question of where we place our trust is a matter of life and death.
The metaphor of withered shrub or watered tree is more intense and more compelling when it is remembered that the poem emerges in a culture that characteristically is desperate for water. The metaphor of water in such a context makes clear that trust is a life-and-death matter. No tree or shrub can survive without water. There are no viable substitutes. Likewise, Judah will find no viable substitute for a genuine trust in Yahweh. Every alternative will lead to withering and death.*
In Jeremiah’s poem, both the tree and the shrub experience drought. But the tree planted by the water endures the drought without loss of fruitfulness. The crucial difference is rootedness. So, in life, every person goes through dry periods of struggle, when God may seem far away, or the stresses of life bear down on us. But our vital connection to the source of life enables us not only to survive, but to thrive through the most difficult seasons.
In the New Testament, we hear the language of flourishing with the enhanced vocabulary of the covenant of grace through Jesus Christ. Again, the images are often botanical: vine & branches, the good tree that bears good fruit, the seed sown in good soil. Jesus said that the disciple who abides in him will bear much fruit, to the glory of the Father. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
It doesn’t happen in isolation. The biblical vision of human flourishing is always a corporate experience. For Jeremiah, it’s the covenant people of God thriving together under the rule of Yahweh. For Paul, it’s the new covenant community called the Church, living, loving and serving together, with Christ as the head. His prayer for the church is radical; it’s about roots.
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3:16-17; emphasis added)
May our churches become flourishing communities that are rooted deeply in the love of Christ. There is nothing in all God’s creation more beautiful than this.
*Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Eerdmans, 4th Edition, 1998, pp. 159-60.