“Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
I remember an instance happening several years ago that left a lasting and painful impression on my mind. I was headed to a garden where several weeds needed to be uprooted, and I was mentally preparing to pull up as many of them as I could, and as fast as I could. When I looked at these weeds from the garden’s edge, I noticed there was a slight variety of them. One particular kind of weed was more leafy than the rest, so I thought it would have a rather soft feeling as I grabbed the stem to uproot it. But boy was I wrong! No sooner had I gripped the weed that a stinging sensation throbbed in my palm, causing me to instantly let go. Thus was my introduction to the nettle plant, a weed that boasted several hairlike stingers along its stem. Unless you are purposefully looking for them, these stingers are easy to miss. But the second you pull on them, they make you quite aware of their presence. Ever since that day, I have regarded this plant with much caution.
In another instance I was walking at a steady pace through the woods, and suddenly found myself being jerked to an abrupt halt. My pants had been snagged by some thorns that were inconspicuously protruding into the trail. After the initial shock of the pointy tips piercing my leg, an impatient wave of irritation caused me to tug away until I could get the bothersome plant to snap. Then I could go free, along with the satisfaction that I had bested this irritable surprise. However, I soon had to forfeit my plan, as the more I tugged away at the thorns the more their pointed tips sunk into my leg. The tangled mess demanded that I temporarily retract and delicately deal with the issue one pointy thorn at a time. Then, and only then, was my liberation from the thorny bush achieved.
When I read verses like today’s, with the thorns being replaced by fir trees and the briers (or nettles) being replaced by myrtle trees, a measure of satisfaction seems to be my heart’s response. After all, with all the inconvenience and pain that thorns and nettles have produced in my life, it’s nice to think of them being replaced by plants that are less intense. However, after pondering Isaiah 55:13, I had to realize that what is being described is not just a physical flora exchange… God is trying to communicate a deeper message through a metaphor. And this metaphor shows us something very important; not just our identity, but the abundant and life-giving effect we are privileged to exercise in this world.
As we well know, thorns and briers are results of the curse that came upon mankind because he sinned:
“…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee…” (Gen. 3:17b-18a). So when we see thorns being mentioned, it’s a direct reference to the curse and effect of sin. These are things we are constantly facing at every turn. Just as the nettles seemed harmless enough to look at, but gave a stinging sensation when they were finally gripped, so we are so quick to reach out for things that seem harmless, yet find them to produce harsh pain in the end. And as for the thorns – the things that snag and entangle us – these entanglements reach more into our day-to-day lives than most of us would care to admit. Jesus Himself likened thorns to “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things…” (see Mark 4:18-19). These all choke out the Word, restricting it from producing fruit in our lives. If we are preoccupied with the concerns of our temporary existence, become enamored with wealth, or want the things that are outside of God and His plan, we are standing snagged by the thorns; we are being choked by the curse of sin.
But God offers something else! Instead of the thorns, God offers the fir tree. And instead of the brier, God offers the myrtle tree. Now, if the thorns and briers represent the effects of the curse, then what do the fir and myrtle trees represent? One Bible dictionary states that the fir tree literally means “a noble tree.” Another source mentions that “in the Judeo-Christian Bible, myrtle trees signify life and fertility.” Let’s think about these descriptions in light of what we’ve looked at so far… If thorns are a metaphor of the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things, then they describe practices that humanity constantly gets wrapped up in. In other words, they are common habits… everybody does them. However, if the fir tree represents something noble, this is a striking contrast to that which is common/acceptable/typical. In other words, when God says that “instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree,” there is a metaphorical description that, instead of our lives being characterized by the snagging and common curses of this world, we will rather be characterized by that which is noble and above reproach. This describes an incredible identity, one that is not seeking to look like a commoner of the world and embrace it acceptable habits. Instead, the replacement of the fir tree describes a noble representative of the kingdom of heaven. This is what God offers to us: not to be entangle with the smothering pursuits of this life, but to be clear demonstrations of His life, a life that is noble.
But the verse doesn’t end there. It also says that, “instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree.” If the brier (or nettle) is a plant that looks harmless at first, but inflicts pain upon contact, the myrtle tree is a clear opposite. Instead of making us the receiver of something bad, the myrtle tree represents making us the giver of something good. The myrtle tree signifies life and fertility. Thus it not only depicts the new life of the Lord that we are to receive, but also shows how we are to be givers of the Lord’s life. Fertility means that new life is able to come through us, and this is what God desires to make a reality in our lives. Instead of us reaching for the “nettle plants,” pursuing our personal gain just to be met with personal loss, God wants us to have “the myrtle tree,” where we are not just receptacles of His divine life, but a conduit whereby that divine life is able to flow through and produce life in others as well. So it could be said that the fir tree represents our new identity, and the myrtle tree represents the operation of our new life.
When we receive the exchange of the Lord, where we are no longer wrapped up in the snares of our temporary existence, but rather live fully in the transforming power of our loving God, we are able to become living demonstrations of His reality, His nature, and His heart. Such a life becomes a sign for the world to behold. And this sign will never end, because the life that bears it has entered into the eternal realm of God Himself.