Gleanings in Jeremiah : 5 : Interpreting Pictures
Jer 1:11,12 The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” “I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied. The LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.”
Now something I suspect most of us take for granted when we read these verses is why the Lord uses pictures at all. Why didn’t He just speak His message directly to Jeremiah instead of going through this process of providing a picture that needed interpreting? Perhaps it was the same reason that Jesus used picture parables to teach – it is just more memorable. Neurologists and psychologists tells us that many people think in pictures and fewer of us think in pure words. I find, and I suspect many others do too, that pictures grab my attention. Yes, there are times, as I said in the previous meditation, when I catch a sense of something, and sometimes a sense of a sentence or sentences being spoken to me, but when it comes to other people I think I more often than not start with a picture. Even before the interpretation comes they lock in to the pictures, they see it in their own minds, they are actually tuning in to what the Holy Spirit is going to say. So what can these pictures that Jeremiah gets teach us?
“I see the branch of an almond tree.” What would Jeremiah have known about an almond tree which was quite common in his land? Well, the almond tree blooms first in the year and so therefore we might say it “wakes up” early. You will find a footnote in your Bible that says “The Hebrew for watching sounds like the Hebrew for almond tree,” but the Hebrew word for “watching” also means to be wakeful. Whatever else this picture is saying it is speaking of being an early watcher which is what a prophet is to be, one who watches and sees what the Lord is doing before other people see it. If that was all it was it would be good, a word picture from the Lord picturing what Jeremiah is to be like, but often the word is more about what the Lord Himself is doing and so this ‘watchful, early tree’ also speaks of the Lord who is watchful, knowing before all others what is coming and what He is doing and because this is the first time Jeremiah gets such a picture the Lord adds content to it in words: “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.”
In this picture He is saying I will make sure that what I say through you WILL come about, be assured of that. In such a way He reassures Jeremiah who no doubt was thinking, as so many do, “But supposing I am wrong and it doesn’t come about?” Those are the two most common responses to prophecy I believe – first, “Who me, you’ve got to be joking,” but then second, “But suppose this is not God and it will never happen, dare I believe it?”
Having started the ball rolling with Jeremiah the Lord gives him a second picture: “The word of the LORD came to me again: “What do you see?” “I see a boiling pot, tilting away from the north,” I answered.” (v.13) So what can we see from that even before any further interpretation is given? Well there is a pot with boiling water that is tipping over so the scalding water pours out. It doesn’t need much imagination to see that boiling water brings pain. It is pointing away from the north; in other words pain is coming from the north. That is a simple starter to catch our attention and that of Jeremiah, and so the Lord now adds content: “The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,” declares the LORD.” (v.14,15a) To the north was the power of Babylonia. Assyria had previously been a threat but since the death of Ashurbanipal, Babylon was left to be the major threat from the north. Throughout his ministry this same word would come and of course in the last decade before the destruction of Jerusalem by them, they would come again and again.
The word continues: “Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah.” (v.15b) King after king from Babylon would be used by the Lord to discipline Israel. The entrance area just inside the gates was the place where the rulers of Jerusalem and the land sat and so when it refers to kings of the north sitting there, it means they will come and take over the city – and so it was through the last years of Jerusalem, again and again.
But the Lord doesn’t just say what He is going to do He also explains WHY He will do it: “I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made.” (v.16) That is pretty simple and straight forward and needs no interpretation.
If you are someone the Lord is giving, or has given the prophetic gift to, then watch for pictures that He may give first, and ask Him what they mean. When I hear people starting out with the gift saying, “Well I have this picture…” and they explain it but then add, “but I don’t know what it means.” I always say, “Well, still your spirit and listen to the Lord for what He wants to tell you it means, and I will listen as well and confirm what you are hearing after you have got it,” and that’s how it works so often.
Why pictures? Because they are memorable and catch our attention. Why words of interpretation? Because the Lord loves to draw us closer to Him as we seek for understanding. He communicates but as well as blessing the person for who you have the word, He also wants to bless you and draw you closer to Him through the process. It is all about relationship with Him.
Just a word about perspective. Beware pride when you start hearing from the Lord. I explain it to people in the following terms: I see me purely as an office boy who gets called in to the boss’s office to carry a memo to someone else. He writes the meme, and I simply carry it. Of course it is more wonderful than that because I am also a child of God and so He has called me (and you) into the family business. Isn’t that wonderful – but always remember who the boss is!