One amazing thing about God is that He takes frail human beings, exposes them to difficult circumstances, then empowers them not just to cope, but to thrive spiritually. The verse above is from the prophet Jeremiah who not only taught this truth, but lived it. It’s part of a proverb-like psalm that no doubt Jeremiah repeated and reflected upon often. If we live by its wisdom, like Jeremiah, despite our frailty we can flourish spiritually too.
The first thing to note is that ‘heat’ is a possibility, perhaps even a certainty; fearful and anxiety provoking things might happen. For Jeremiah that involved being called to prophesy for a group of people who at best mocked and ignored him, ‘let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words’(Jeremiah 18:18), and who even used physical violence against him ‘Pashhur struck Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks’(Jeremiah 20:2).
But Jeremiah didn’t dry up in this heat because he was ‘as a tree planted by the waters, who spreads out its roots by the river’. The preceding verses make it clear the river represents God; Jeremiah was rooted and trusting in God. This gave him the spiritual sap to not wilt in a hostile environment. The mistake is to seek strength from elsewhere, such as ‘the man who trusts in man’(Jeremiah 17:5), or any other hopeless water supply – ‘“they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters, and cut them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water”’(Jeremiah 2:13). If we do that we’ll shrivel, die and become metaphorical compost (!): ‘Those who depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken Yahweh, the spring of living waters’(Jeremiah 17:13).
But what exactly does being rooted in God mean, and where do we find this water supply?
Psalm 1 provides one answer: ‘On his [God’s] law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also does not wither’(Psalm 1:3). We tap into God by studying and reflecting on His word, the Bible. Prayer is essential too. In prayer we listen to and share with God through His inner working in our hearts; there we can develop thoughts, feelings and plans with Him, and seek His help and guidance. For the New Testament believer it’s our relationship with Jesus through Bible study and prayer that sustains and fills us with the water of the Holy Spirit: ‘Jesus stood and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water.” But he said this about the Spirit, which those believing in him were to receive.’(John 7:37-39).
It’s interesting to note the effect of this water. It not only refreshes but flows from within us. In the plant metaphor this is the fruit – in Psalm 1 and in our study verse, as Jeremiah 17:8 ends, ‘… neither shall cease from yielding fruit.’ These fruits are many and varied. They include leading souls to God’s Kingdom; Jeremiah left his book; Paul describes many personal qualities as ‘fruit of the Spirit’(Galatians 5:22).
But such thoughts can be discouraging if we’re aware of our own inadequacy and failings. Fortunately the Bible is realistic about that. Jeremiah is a good example of the struggle it can be. At the beginning of his ministry he felt weak and inadequate, ‘the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, “… I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Behold, I don’t know how to speak”(Jeremiah 1:4-6), and later he wished he’d never been born, ‘Why came I forth out of the womb to see labor and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?’(Jeremiah 20:18).
Fortunately our struggles and failings don’t disqualify us. In fact ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’(1 John 1:8). No doubt Jeremiah cherished his proverb-like psalm when he felt tempted to fear and despair. He lived in a time of great turmoil. He had his struggles, but he kept sending out those roots, drawing on the life giving water, feeling his spiritual sap rising heavenwards, where now he rejoices for all eternity in lush spiritual paradise.