“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope [confidence, security] is in the Lord.
For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit” (Jer. 17:7-8)
Many believe that the tree Jeremiah had in mind when he wrote those words was the acacia tree, which was common in the deserts of ancient Israel.
The bible is filled from cover to cover with tree-focused imagery and analogies, and they featured heavily in the teachings of Jesus. To the agrarian-based ancient biblical-era societies—particularly those living in a desert climate—the deeper meanings and takeaways from tree-based language would have been very clear. But to us today it’s easy to gloss over these verses with only a surface understanding.
Recently I was reading a daily bible devotion that expounded on the acacia and its relation to this verse in Jeremiah:
“This tree has been designed by God to survive decades of intense heat and drought. It can survive tough circumstances because it has a deep root system to sustain it during the hardest of times. Even during a time of drought, this tree is still able to bless local residents by providing shade during the day and wood for fire at night” (from Bible.com).
Psalm 1:3 mirrors our Jeremiah foundation passage, with a few nuances. It tells us that the one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on His law is like a tree planted by the rivers, which yields fruit in due season, whose leaf does not wither, and who prospers in all he does.
These passages give us some important insights into qualities that God wants from His people.
- Planted by a good source of water (intentionally placed, proximity, set up for success)
- Deep and wide root structure (stability, connection to sustenance)
- Green leaves, no withering (healthy, growing, provides shade)
- Not anxious in a time of drought or heat (knows that God will provide)
- Does not cease yielding fruit in season (productive even in harsh conditions)
We’ll dig (ha, plant pun!) into these characteristics more in the rest of this study in order better appreciate what God is telling us.
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But first, what’s the purpose of a plant’s roots?
That sounds like a “duh” question, but stick with me here. Despite growing up on a farm, I had to do a little research because I am admittedly NOT a plant person…I don’t really garden, and can’t keep plants alive, no matter what I try.
Roots play such a key role in the survival and health of a plant. They anchor it, keeping it from being blown or washed away. They tap into the water needed for sustenance, and find the nutrients a plant needs to stay alive and produce fruit.
I’m not going to go way down a rabbit hole on the spiritual analogy, because any analogy breaks down eventually, but basically envision roots as your means of connecting to God, utilizing His holy spirit, and being nourished by His words and your relationship with Him.
Let’s briefly explore a few facets that may bring some additional insights into how we view the analogy of spiritual roots.
Roots provide life-sustaining water and food
Perhaps the most obvious thing about roots is that they are the tree’s means of getting water and nutrients, which they use along with sunlight to grow. Our spiritual roots are much the same.
God’s holy spirit is often symbolized as “living water”, and each of us must be spiritually tapped into this source on a daily basis (John 7:38-39). We should be partaking of “our daily bread” (Christ and His words) and seeking out nourishing spiritual food (John 6:35, Heb. 5:12-14).
What I didn’t realize, though, was that roots really have to work for it:
“Plants are not passive actors in the soil environment, humming along to themselves idle while nutrients and water jump into their roots. Rather, it takes a substantial amount of effort by the plants to wrest and wrangle away the basics needed to eke out a living from the soil. As a matter of survival, then, they must invest some of the energy gained from sunlight in this process.” (see article)
The spiritual analogy mirrors this. God provides the water (His spirit), food (Is. 55:2, John 8:51), and the (sun)light (John 8:12, Ps. 18:38) that we need—not only to survive, but to grow, thrive, and bear fruit.
They are there for the taking, but they don’t just *jump* into us. It requires diligence, consistency, and effort on our part. Peter blasts a hole in the “once saved, always saved” myth and makes very clear that God expects His people to actively work toward growth.
“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.
For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful…Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure” (II Pet. 1:5-8, 10).
If you’re waiting to be spoon-fed, shy away from diving into “meatier” topics, or only get spiritual food from the weekly sermon at church (which may or may not be great), then there’s a good chance your spiritual roots may be shriveling up—leaving you undernourished.
We should feel like David, who cried out in the Psalms, “O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You; in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1).
Like David, and the Bereans who Paul mentions “searched the scriptures daily”, we have to seek, ask, and knock (Acts 17:11, Matt. 7:7). We must thirst to be closer to God. And it can’t just be one day a week. We must make time in our schedules throughout the week to spend time with Him in prayer, bible study, and meditating on His words.
A deep relationship with God does not show up on our doorstep like an Amazon package, but God promises that if we come close to him, He will reciprocate. And that if we stay the course and do “not grow weary in doing good” with what we sow, we will reap the fruits (James 4:8, Gal. 6:9).
Another fun little science-y nuance to roots is this: “Soil nutrients are often bound in chemical forms that plants simply cannot access easily. Any nutrient must be dissolved in water prior to plant uptake.”
Again, the spiritual connection isn’t hard to see. We must be accessing and utilizing God’s holy spirit in our lives in order to understand His words, and also to have the ability to overcome sin and produce the fruits He desires. We can’t do it without Him.
Psalm 1 tells us that the person who delights and meditates on God’s law is planted by the stream for easy access to water.
We must think (drink) deeply and often, always studying, testing, questioning, digging, and—above all—asking God for His guidance. This will help the spiritual nutrients we need be “dissolved” in the living water of His spirit and accessible to us for growth.
Just as a tree cannot grow and thrive without water, neither can we without constantly taking in God’s words every day. But boy, we sure do try.
So it’s worth asking yourself…what are you getting your nourishment from on a daily basis? What quenches your thirst? What are your roots tapped into?
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A deep root system provides stability
Another huge benefit of a deep root system is that it acts as an anchor for the tree, allowing it to weather storms without toppling. In a tempest, a strong tree might sway or bend a bit…but if its roots are deep and healthy, it will stand firm.
It is this quality that Paul is referring to when he tells the Corinthians to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (I Cor 15:58).
Psalms and Proverbs tells us time and again that God will not allow the righteous who trust in Him to be shaken or moved. Here are just a few of those verses:
- “A man is not established by wickedness, but the root of the righteous cannot be moved” (Prov. 12:3)
- “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved [shaken]” (Ps. 55:22)
- “I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved” (Ps. 16:8)
What does it mean to not be “moved”? The word (mote, H4131) can mean to waver, slip, shake, or to be carried away or fall into decay.
God promises that if we have a deep root system that is tapped into Him (His desires, His voice, His commands) daily, He will not allow us to waver, to be shaken, or to be carried off course in life.
That doesn’t mean we won’t ever wobble a bit or go through trials, but with His help we will not fall—that is an incredible and comforting promise!
But a deep root system doesn’t only benefit the tree itself. Many varieties of acacia are valued for their long, deep roots which help stabilize the soil and surrounding plants in areas threatened by erosion.
In fact, many drier wine-growing cultures, from the Middle East to Portugal, use strategically-planted olive trees in this way for their hilly vineyard terraces, to form a strong root infrastructure which prevents erosion and protects the grapevines.
If we develop deep and wide spiritual roots, then we, likewise, will be a source of stability and strength to those around us…able to help bear one another’s burdens and combat spiritual erosion (see deeper study on spiritual erosion).
It’s important to remember that a deep and wide root system doesn’t develop overnight—it takes years. More mature trees (like the house built on the rock) can withstand the many storms that come their way (Luke 6:48-49). But newly-planted roots are shallow and more vulnerable to the elements, needing more protection and nurturing to thrive.
The parallel for “babes in the faith” is clear, and it highlights the responsibility for more mature Christians to be a source of support, encouragement, and knowledge (Heb. 5:12-14).
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Deep root systems are a benefit to those around them
We’ve talked about how a deep root system can provide stability and prevent soil erosion for the surrounding plant life, but that’s not the only benefit.
Here’s some more root science: “The deeper they go, the more benefits they provide to soil fertility and stable carbon storage in soils.”
Basically, the deeper roots a tree has, the more it benefits the healthy life and nutrients in the soil around them, which nourishes other plants and helps them to grow.
God’s people are called to do the same—we should not only be “consumers” of God’s spirit (receive His grace and spiritual nourishment), but give of ourselves (I John 3:16, Phil. 2:5-8).
Paul exhorts the Philippians about this attitude of service and benefit to their brethren, saying, “In humility, regard each other as better than yourselves—look out for each other’s interests and not just for your own” (Phil. 2:3-4).
These benefits extend beyond the soil as well. If we are growing into healthy trees with deep roots, we can share with our brethren spiritual shade from the heat, a source of protection, nurturing, and comfort. We can also be the fuel that feeds a flame (the holy spirit), brings warmth, light, and protection in the dark. And, of course, the spiritual fruits we are supposed to bear are richly rewarding not only to ourselves, but also to others (Gal. 5:22-23).
When we develop deep roots, we are not the only beneficiary—we should be a blessing to others through hard times, just as God commands.
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What can weaken and endanger our spiritual root system?
We need to be aware of things that can damage our roots or prevent them from growing strong.
The first obvious answer here is when we’re not seeking out and tapping into the sustenance God offers, or not putting in the effort to seek out the spiritual nourishment we need. When we aren’t staying close to Him DAILY in areas such as prayer, bible study, meditation (spending time thinking about His words and ways), and regularly caring for and spending time with our brethren, we are not building or maintaining roots that are deep and strong enough to withstand trials.
The result is shallow roots that just skim the surface…these can get a tree along for a bit, but when faced with heat or storms (trials) or drought (famine of word, lack of using the holy spirit), the tree cannot survive.
If we’re not careful, we’ll seem fine for a while, but ultimately end up like the virgins who run out of oil in their lamps at the last minute and miss out on a chance to be part of God’s elect (Matt. 25).
Similarly, Jesus tells us in the parable of the sower about different ways people respond to God’s calling. The person whose seed immediately takes root in shallow soil is a cautionary tale, because while it initially thrives, it ultimately withers in the heat because “he has no root in himself”.
This type of person cannot persevere through trials—when the heat ramps up and the water is a little harder to find, its roots aren’t deep enough to keep the plant alive.
This is contrasted with the person who bears a huge amount of fruit because the word has “good ground” to take root in. The (spiritual) soil we’re planted in makes a huge difference in our chances for success.
The quality of nutrients and ability of soil to hold and drain water are as critical to our spiritual roots as they are to literal plants. Think of the soil as your setting—where you spend your time, what you think about, and with whom. The trees spoken of in Jeremiah and Psalms were planted by the river, a perfect spot for getting the water and nourishment they needed. Are you situated in good ground, or trying to survive in shallow, rocky soil?
Even when a tree has deep roots, they sometimes end up rotting over time. One cause of this is sitting in stagnant water (vs. moving/living water). God’s people—particularly those who have been “in the faith” for many years—must guard against stagnating in our spiritual journeys.
This can come from things like complacency, apathy, or spiritual weariness, where we’re just going through the motions in our walk with God. Or we sometimes allow sins such as envy, gossip, anger, and bitterness to take root (Prov. 14:30).
Somewhat related to this idea of rot is another thing that can weaken or kill our roots…drawing from the wrong sources of sustenance. For instance, Paul cautions us against bitterness, which can poison and kill the plant (Heb. 12:15). If we’re tapped into the ideas and values of our society rather than God, we will similarly be drawing the wrong kind of water and nutrients in with our roots. This will ultimately lead to our destruction.
In fact, sometimes God has to dump some fertilizer (crap) on us to save our roots…when the root cannot find enough sustenance (or isn’t working hard enough to find it) and it is in danger of dying.
There are times in our lives when God uses hardships and allows trials in our lives to get our attention (as well as test and strengthen us). The trees with the deepest roots are the ones that grow and thrive during hardships.
It’s important that we carefully examine our lives on a regular basis, being on the lookout for dangers that might be threatening our spiritual roots—for instance, if we’re not actively seeking out enough spiritual nourishment, are only developing a surface relationship with God, growing shallow roots that will wither in trials, stagnating in our spiritual growth, or are seeking out our spiritual nourishment from the wrong sources.
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Developing strong, deep spiritual root systems—for ourselves & others
Because of its deep roots that can reach way down for water, acacia trees have thick, strong trunks and full foliage even in the hottest, driest conditions. The acacia does not reflect the scarcity of the environment that surrounds it.
God specifically designed the acacia to survive difficult times, and He has done the same for us. We were created and called to not only survive harsh circumstances and trials, but to grow, thrive, and bear fruit through them. And similarly, we should not reflect the spiritually malnourished society around us.
This can only be possible when the foundations of our faith are deeply rooted and when we’re connected to our source of living water and spiritual food.
Which…sounds great, but how do we DO that?
Let’s go back to that passage in Psalm 1, but back up a verse for some context:
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper” (Ps. 1:2-3)
The word here for “meditate” is hagah, which means to mutter or make a sound. Think of this as kind of muttering under your breath (or in your head), repeating to yourself, memorizing, and mulling over God’s words (link to meditate study).
This can be read as cause-and-effect…a person who meditates on God’s law day and night is developing strong roots and connecting to God’s spirit in a way that will sustain them through life’s difficult seasons. So that’s one key element to consider.
If we then go back to our foundational Jeremiah passage, it not only talks about meditating on God’s law, but someone who “trusts in the Lord, and whose hope [security, confidence] is in the Lord” (Jer. 17:7-8). Just a few verses later Jeremiah emphatically states that our human hearts are “deceitful above all…and desperately wicked”.
In other words, we CAN’T trust in our own thinking or emotions when they are at odds with God’s word. When faced with trials, our tendency is to trust in ourselves, in our smarts or work ethic or gut instincts or government or…pretty much anything BUT putting it in God’s hands.
And yet, we are told in the psalms what is reiterated constantly through scripture—“cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved [shaken]” (Ps. 55:22). If we are staying close to God and putting our trust in Him, we do not have to be scared or anxious in times of trial and uncertainty.
What do you place your confidence in? Where do you find security and peace of mind? What sustains you when times are hard? What do your thoughts dwell on during the day? The answers to these questions can help each of us how deep and healthy our roots are right now.
So let’s review what God is looking for from us:
- Planted by a good source of water (closeness to God, accessing His spirit)
- Deep and wide root structure (steadfastness in storms, connection to sustenance)
- Green leaves, no withering (healthy, growing, provides shade)
- Not anxious in a time of drought or heat (trusts in God to provide)
- Does not cease yielding fruit in season (productive and healthy even in harsh conditions)
We must develop a deep-rooted trust and faith in God…not simply to survive (though that’s important), but to bear the fruit that God expects and to be a blessing to others (Gal. 5:22, Prov. 12:12).
Paul prayed for the Ephesians, and for God’s people today:
“…That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded [tapped into] in love, may be able to comprehend…what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17-19)
“The root of the righteous yields fruit” (Prov. 12:12)