We’ve all heard sermons on Jesus’ parable of the sower, told in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. He told the crowd, “listen if you have ears.”
Then he quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10. He told his disciples essentially that he told parables so people without spiritual ears would not understand.
Isaiah himself provides two parables about farming. Like Jesus’ parable, they seem like obvious facts about what farmers do.
Those with ears to hear, those who belong to God’s kingdom, can find important spiritual truths in them.
Parable of plowing and sowing
Give ear and hear my voice;
listen and hear my speech.
Does the plowman plow all day to sow?
Does he continually turn and break the clods of his ground?
Does he not level its surface
and sow dill and scatter the cumin
and plant wheat in rows,
barley in its place
and the rye within its area?
For his God instructs
and teaches him appropriately. Isaiah 28: 23-26 (MEV)
Different translations use different English words for the ancient crops. It doesn’t matter.
Plowing does violence to the ground. The farmer plows only until the ground is ready for the seed. Then he uses a different method for planting each kind of seed. He plants each on an appropriate plot.
Farming techniques were passed from father to son. Every farmer learned to prepare the ground. He learned how and where to plant each crop. Isaiah points out that ultimately all farmers learn how to farm not from their earthly fathers, but God.
Parable of threshing
For the dill is not threshed with a threshing instrument,
nor is a cartwheel driven over the cumin;
but the dill is beaten out with a staff,
and the cumin with a rod.
Grain for bread is crushed;
so he does not continue to thresh it forever,
nor break it with the wheel of his cart,
nor crush it with his horsemen.
This also comes from the Lord of Hosts,
who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom. Isaiah 28:27-29
Once the farmer harvests his grain crops, he performs another violent act: threshing. That is, he must use a tool to extract the edible part from the surrounding stalks and husks. But he can’t use the same tool for each crop.
He used the cartwheel for wheat, but not cumin. If oxen drag a cartwheel over cumin, they would ruin it. If someone beat wheat with a rod, it would have no effect.
Wheat simply requires a more violent means of threshing than cumin. But it doesn’t last forever. While the animals do their work, someone keeps turning the wheat with a fork. When he sees that the grain has become separate from the husks, it’s time to stop threshing.
Again, the farmer learned the wisdom needed to know how to thresh and when to stop from his father. But ultimately, it comes from God. For “wonderful,” read “supernatural.” Even the most basic human tasks must ultimately rest on revelation knowledge.
The parables explained
The entire book of Isaiah can be summarized in four words: God is in control. From chapters 13 through 35, Isaiah addresses the nations of the known world. God will eventually destroy them all, but the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah comes with a promise of restoration.
Isaiah addresses these two parables to Judah.
Regarding plowing, God needs to prepare human hearts to receive his word. Don’t read Jesus’ parable of the sower as dividing people into four equal parts. Farmers prepared the ground as best they knew how. God understands even better. He know how to plow and he knows when to stop. But in Judah, it appears that the weeds of paganism and human pride had choked the word that Moses, David, and others had planted.
Regarding threshing, God aims to separate his people from sin.
Despite many warnings, King Hezekiah decided to depend on his own cleverness, not God’s promises, to save the kingdom from the Assyrian threat.
His tunnel, a notable engineering feat, shows his choice of self-sufficiency over faith. His diplomacy eventually put the kingdom under a new overlord, Babylon. And he was one of Judah’s most pious kings.
Just as separating wheat from chaff requires violence, separating Israel and Judah from their habitual paganism required the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests.
What do Isaiah’s parables mean today?
Separating people from sin in general requires violence. Maybe not physical violence. But who hasn’t suffered violence against ambition or pride by having some hope or other crushed? Or some other kind of violence to our plans, finances, health, relationships, or feelings?
We often demand to know why God allows certain things to happen in our lives. Imagine cumin demanding to know why someone is beating it with a rod! Because it is surrounded by a husk that makes it useless, that’s why. Answering that at least it isn’t under a cartwheel might not bring much comfort.
These parables tell anyone with ears to hear that God knows what he’s doing. He subjects his people to what Paul called “momentary, light afflictions.” They might not feel momentary or light as we go through them. But they will last only as long as it takes to separate us from some sin.
The sooner we obey what God has told us to do, the sooner our threshing will come to an end.
Hezekiah’s tunnel. Photo by Tamar Hayardeni. Wikimedia Commons