Examine the Flowers of the Field

April 2019

See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves is heard in our land.

Song of Songs 2:11-12

It has been a wet winter for much of Israel.  As a result, the last six years of drought have been softened by the recent concentrated rain stretching from the Golan and Galilee down to Jerusalem and the coast.  While Israel is no longer solely dependent on rainfall for its survival with the technological advance of desalinated water which makes up 70% of its domestic consumption, the fresh precipitation has slaked its dry and thirsty land.  From the country’s agricultural fields to its flora and fauna, the land is bursting forth with verdant life.  Looking around the landscape, a canvas of blue skies and green foliage is painted with an unavoidable montage of bright and lucid colors.  In the rural fields and even in urban patches, Israel’s flowers are now showing off their proud petals.

Perhaps it was during this flourishing season, 2,000 years ago, when Jesus spoke these words in this land:

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? Examine how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the nations run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.                                                      Mt 6:25-34

As Song of Songs 2:11-12 points out, spring is a season of growth and promise—illustrated by singing birds and blooming buds.  During this time, nature is filled with hope as new life lays ahead.  Yet, in this very moment of supreme opportunity, Jesus perceives something ironically debilitating his followers—worry.  Five times in this passage, Jesus references the anxiety that has accompanied human existence for millennia—sustenance and shelter.  ‘What shall we eat?’ ‘What shall we drink?’ ‘What shall we wear?’  These are seemingly innocuous questions…but are they? While Jesus would agree that survival is not to be ignored, perhaps, on this occasion, he is alluding to something more insidious at the foundation of these worries. 

If we begin with the second question, ‘What shall we drink,’ this phrase dramatically appears while the people of Israel are in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.  When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.)  So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test.  He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”                          Ex 15:22-26

Here, ‘What shall we drink?’ is not a question; it is a complaint.  The people of Israel are having a hard time in the wilderness—they have a bad attitude—they are grumbling about not having enough good water to drink.  This question appears during a time of testing.  God wants to see what is truly in the hearts of His people.  Will they listen and obey His word?

Jesus' first question, ‘What shall we eat?’, is also implied as a complaint within the context of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. 

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.  In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.  On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt,  and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?”  Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”                             Ex 16:1-8

It is implied here that the people are grumbling: ‘What shall we eat?’  Again, this question appears during a time of trial.  The Lord is testing the people to know if they will obey His word.

The third inquiry, ‘What shall we wear?’, also, like the first two questions, fits well within Israel’s wilderness narrative. Deuteronomy 8 recaps those forty years of wilderness trials by emphasizing the connection between divine testing and basic human needs of food, water, and clothes.

Remember how the Lord your God led you
all the way in the wilderness these forty years,
to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart,
whether or not you would keep his commands.
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then
feeding you with manna,
which neither you nor your ancestors had known,
to teach you that man does not live on bread alone
but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.
Know then in your heart that as a father disciplines his son,
so the Lord your God disciplines you.

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land,
with its venomous snakes and scorpions.
He brought you water out of hard rock.     
                                                                                                                   Dt 8:2-5,15

Here, we see that, in the wilderness, God provided the people food, water, and clothes that did not wear out.  He was testing them, or humbling them, to see what was in their hearts.  He wanted to know if they would continue to follow him, to obey His word, even when times were difficult. 

But, ironically, Dt 8:10-18 says that it is not the tough times that are the true challenge for faith; it is when the people have all they can eat, all they can drink, the finest clothes, the biggest houses, and are rich.  These are the times to be worried.  This is when the Lord and His word can be forgotten. 

Deuteronomy 8:4 emphasizes that while bread or food might nurture the body for a time, it cannot save the soul.  What comes out of God’s mouth—His teaching, His word—is transcendent bread.[1]  To eat ‘that bread,’ you must obey it.  Therefore, God’s word and our relationship with Him is more important than physical food.  In effect, in Matthew 6:25-34, perhaps, that is what Jesus was trying to say between the lines:

“Therefore, I tell you, do not grumble and complain about your life,
what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.
Rather, be concerned about God’s word and obeying it.
What kind of attitude do you have hidden in your heart?”

This was a subject that Jesus taught on often—obeying God’s word.  This obedience is not about quantity; it’s about quality.[2]  The quantity will come, but the quality must come first.  It’s not how much you obey God’s word, its why you obey God’s word.  Obedience is an attitude not a platitude.[3]

In Matthew 6’s account, Jesus says “look at the birds,” but about the flowers, he says “examine, consider, learn from.”[4]  With that impetus, when we investigate more closely the “flowers of the field” within their biblical context, we learn that the human body, like a flower, is fading, but God’s word is eternal and, so too, His faithfulness to those who obey that word.

In Isaiah 40:6-8 we see:

A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass 
and all their
faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.  
The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
but the word of our God endures forever.”

Isaiah says that people, like flowers and grass, are mortal.  He points out that our faithfulness[5] is likewise fragile.  We break our word; we hurt others.  In essence, we are sinners.  But in contrast to humanity and its fallible ways, God’s word is eternal and unbreakable.  It is something secure and trustworthy.

In Psalm 103:13-19, we also read about the “flower of the field” as temporal.

As a father has compassion on his children, 
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dirt.
The life of humans is like grass, they flourish like a
flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s
faithfulness is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

Here, too, in Psalms 103, people are compared to flowers and grass which spring up from the ground.  According to the Bible, humans come from dirt, and when they die, they return to dirt.[6]  So too, all vegetation grows from dirt, producing flowering fruit.  A flower, like a human, only lives once.  Its life is not indelible but passing.  Its fruit appears for a season.  With the approach of Israel’s hot, arid summer and spring’s foliage fast fading, it only takes a warm wind to wipe away the flower’s quickly aging petal-crown.  While Isaiah 40 says our “faithfulness” (hesed) is frail like “flowers of the fields,” Psalm 103 says God’s faithfulness (hesed) is enduring, and it is with “those who fear Him”—those who obey His word.  This is where God’s Kingdom reigns.

Jesus teaches that our Heavenly Father loves us and wants to give us good things—food, water, clothing—but life is more than these commodities.  The gospel that Jesus preaches, is a wilderness gospel—God will give us enough, what we need, in the time that we need it.  We will be tried and tested in this world.  We will suffer.  But it is in that wilderness of testing that God demonstrates His compassion for us, like a father disciplining his children, helping us to grow up.[7] 

So too, Jesus challenged his followers to grow up in Matthew 6:30 when he called his disciples—“you of little faith.”  Faith, like obedience, is an attitude which matures with humility.  Life is not about what we do; it’s about how we do it.  What matters is that we obey God’s word with purity and humility of heart.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.  For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,  

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

 And this is the word that was preached to you.                                           1 Peter 1:22-25

[1] So too, in the Mishna, Pirkei Avot 3:17, there is a similar idea, “אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח ” (If there is no flour for bread, there is no Torah; but if there is no Torah, there is no flour for bread.).

[2] Mt 7:21-23

[3] Lk 18:9-14

[4] “Look at the birds (ἐμβλέψατε εἰς τὰ πετεινὰ).” “Examine the flowers (καταμάθετε τὰ κρίνα).”

[5] The Hebrew word here for “faithfulness” is חסד (hesed). It has a swath of translations, but, put simply, hesed is that faithfulness and loyalty found in any true relationship.

[6] “for you are dust, and to dust you will return” Gen 3:19b

[7] In both these passages, Isaiah 40 and Psalm 103, which use the metaphor “flowers of the field” to depict humanity, there are allusions to Israel’s wilderness wanderings (Isa 40:3, 31; Ps 103:5, 7-8, 17-18). Therefore, Jesus’ usage of this phrase “flowers of the field” in Mt 6:28-30 carries with it, potentially, the trappings of those wilderness ideas.