Understanding Agriculture in the Ancient World.
The Bible compares the work and growth of the kingdom to sowing and reaping. This agricultural figure of speech can help us in our work in the Lord’s harvest field. We will draw better and more biblical conclusions from the passages that use this metaphor, however, if we first understand something about agriculture in the world of the Bible.
Like me, you have probably heard people extend the metaphor of sowing and reaping to include many additional aspects beyond these two, such as plowing, watering, sunshine, and even having proper tools and keeping them sharp. At some point we go too far in this way. Anytime the Bible uses a metaphor, it is partially parallel to the spiritual application but not fully parallel, so we always need to be careful not to say more than Scripture is saying. On the other hand, there appears to be a little more included in sowing and reaping that I previously thought. Specifically, sowing appears to also include the idea of plowing.
To plow is to open up the ground to receive seed. Also related to this is harrowing, a word that appears in some versions of the Bible. A harrow (noun) is an implement with sharp teeth that can be used to harrow (verb) the ground, that is, break up clods, remove weeds, and cover seed. Having looked up the word harrow, I now see why we use the phrase “a harrowing experience” to describe something of great distress. The overlap between plowing and harrowing is clear from their definitions and also from the fact that they are used in parallel in in Hosea 10:11 (ESV; cf. Isaiah 28:24).
Sowing refers to scattering seed on the ground as a way of planting it. It makes good sense to me to first plow the ground and then scatter or plant the seed in the upturned soil. Historians have discovered, however, that at least sometimes farmers would scatter seed first and then plow it under. You may have noticed above that one purpose of harrowing the ground is to cover seed. The practice of plowing after sowing may have been the background to the parable of the sower where seed lands in various places, some more fertile than others.
Though plowing (or harrowing) and sowing are two distinct activities, they were sometimes thought of together, as mentioned above and also seen elsewhere in Scripture.
As I have seen, those who plow iniquityJob 4:8 (ESV)
and sow trouble reap the same.
Notice that plowing and sowing are used parallel here. Both are descriptions of sinful activity. Similarly, Hosea calls the people to “sow righteousness” and “break up your fallow ground” (Hosea 10:12). Sowing and breaking up ground are parallel. Notice the next verse mentions plowing and reaping instead of the more usual sowing and reaping (Hosea 10:13), another indication that plowing and sowing are related. Thus, though sowing and plowing are distinct activities, the two are closely associated.
Besides sowing, the other primary activity we are considering in this series is reaping. To reap is to gather in the ripened grain at the time of the Harvest (1 Samuel 6:13). More could be said about this, but the meaning is clear.
These two words, sowing and reaping, are often used together in the Bible to describe literal agriculture. The basic, observable truth of sowing and reaping is that one leads to the other. You will reap what you sow. This relationship is so common and observable in agriculture that it becomes proverbial. Occasionally, however, the proverbial and expected relationship between the two does not take place, which is shocking and noteworthy (Jeremiah 12:13; Micah 6:15). In both of these cases God interrupted the usual and expected relationship as a judgment on the people due to their sin.
Because sowing and reaping are predictable and proverbial, they are also used figurately in the Bible to describe a variety of other matters where there is a similarly predictable relationship. The basic idea in this figurative sense is that the kinds of activities a person engages in will determine the kinds of outcomes that ensue. The phrase expresses the normal relationship between actions and consequences.
Some of the matters this proverb is applied to figuratively include sinning and experiencing trouble (Job 4:8; Proverbs 22:8; Galatians 6:7-8), living right and experiencing God’s steadfast love (Hosea 10:12), imparting spiritual truth to others and receiving financial support from them (1 Corinthians 9:11), and giving and consequently receiving back (2 Corinthians 9:6). Again, the basic idea is that what a person does determines what a person gets. The last verse listed also includes the idea of proportion: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
The metaphor is also used figuratively to describe people entering the kingdom of God. Sometimes both sowing and reaping are included in the passages, and sometimes just one or the other. The use of this metaphor to describing people coming to Christ is our focus in this series of posts. We will look at several such passages and see what we can learn about helping others enter the kingdom.
Before we leave this introductory post, however, consider this extended description of farming in the ancient world, noticing the terms and matters we discussed above:
23 Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
24 Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
25 When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
26 For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.
27 Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,Isaiah 28:23-29 (ESV)
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.
28 Does one crush grain for bread?
No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
with his horses, he does not crush it.
29 This also comes from the Lord of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.
In addition to reinforcing and adding to what we noted above about ancient agriculture, there are a couple helpful lessons for us already. The obvious one is that the wise farmers in this passage were instructed by God (vv. 26, 29). They Lord was involved in their learning how to tend to and steward the created world. Based on this, we might expect he has much to teach us about the spiritual harvest as well.
The other lesson emerges from the greater context. Both before and after this passage, God is announcing judgment on the people. Many people, however, were arrogantly confident that their pagan covenants would protect them from God’s scourge (28:14-15). In light of that context, it appears that the point of this rather detailed “agricultural” passage is that God, like a good farmer, uses a variety of approaches to achieve his ends. Specifically, his steadfast love is often appropriate and effective, but he will also sometimes use judgment. Though this passage is not referring specifically to outreach or evangelism, it does teach us something about the way God works, namely, in various ways. The several passages that apply the proverbial association of sowing and reaping to reaching out to others rightfully leads us to expect certain results from our actions.
At the same time, however, we need to avoid the mistake of Isaiah’s audience. We cannot confine God to a box or hold him to our expectations. We must remember that we are not the Lord of the Harvest—he is.
For more on how Empowering Subjects seeks to equip workers for the harvest, see here.
3 thoughts on “Sowing and Reaping—1”