“To grant to those who mourn in Zion-to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3 (ESV)
What exactly does an “oak of righteousness” look like? Do you see it as this great, towering, beautifully shaped tree with a massive trunk and limbs that spread out over an almost inconceivably large area? This is how I envisioned such an “Isaiah 61:3” tree for the longest time. And why not, you might very well ask? It seems to be a quite reasonable vision to adopt in my mind’s eye given its origin and purpose doesn’t it? After all, we are talking about a tree planted and cared for along the way by the Lord Himself. It’s quite easy to imagine the form of such a glorious tree as being a Mary Poppins sort of tree, “practically perfect in every way.” Why, we could call it a “poster tree” or a “model tree” so magnificent in its appearance it must surely be. This vision of an “Isaiah 61:3” tree, then, became my mental image destination expressed in my prayers and longed for in my heart over the past several years.
How I envision an “oak of righteousness” is no small matter because I’ve learned along the way that how my heart responds to various things going on in my life, specifically the difficult circumstances, is tied strongly to my expectations which in turn are linked to hope. “See the ball, be the ball” is a favorite expression these days and it applies here as well. Just substitute “tree” for “ball” and you’re there. If my sincere prayer is to become an “oak of righteousness” then isn’t it fair to say that it greatly matters what I envision when I imagine such a tree in my heart and mind? Therefore, as a believer it’s entirely reasonable to ask myself if my “mental paintings” of such a tree are Biblically sound or not.
“Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. 6 So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” “Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” Genesis 37:5-7, 9 (NKJV)
What do you suppose Joseph’s expectations were following these two God-breathed dreams? I can’t say for sure about Joseph, but if I had been visited by such dreams I’m confident in saying that my daydreams…my expectations…my hopes… afterwards would’ve soared high above the clouds and far beyond even to the moon and the stars. I would’ve been like a hot air balloon soaring upwards without even the tiniest hint of a sand bag being present to even dare slow my imagined rapid ascent.
To borrow a familiar phrase, however: what goes up must come down, and this is especially true when pride itself has been shown to be present.
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 (NKJV)
“So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. 24 Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it.” Genesis 37: 23-24 (NKJV)
“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.” What’s your reaction to these lyrics by James Taylor from his song, “Fire and Rain?” From day one years ago when I first heard this phrase these words have captivated me. The visual imagery of crushed expectations and lost hope conveyed by these few words upon my heart is stunningly precise in its poignant message. Certainly Joseph could’ve related all too painfully well to these lyrics from the bottom of the pit now having found himself so very far away from the dreamy scenario of the bowing wheat sheaves, moon, and stars that had once delighted him and filled him with so much hope. I’m guessing Joseph couldn’t wait for such an incredibly bright future to come.
So, how do you safely navigate what appears to be an abruptly cruel and unexpected end to your glorious parade of expectations? What do you do when you find yourself slogging through a terrifying detour, knee deep in an unmapped, dark and foreboding swamp with no exit sign over a single hollowed out half-dead tree to be found in any direction? How do you not panic and keep your spiritual nose above the water? I can only imagine what thoughts and questions must’ve been racing through Joseph’s mind at the bottom of this dark hole. “But… but…but…God…what about those dreams you gave me? Were those dreams real or just something created by my own imagination? This is NOT at all how I thought things were going to unfold. Why has this happened to me? Something is off here! HELP!”
And indeed, something is “off.” When our expectations do not match up exactly with the Lord’s ways we find our once bright hope growing uncomfortably dim and vulnerable to attack. It’s our very nature to think we’ve got God figured out, especially so when we see Him on the move in our lives. We then impetuously leap ahead fully confident we’ve got Him and the whole situation already mapped out. In doing so we erect an unrealistic outwardly beautiful oak of righteousness in our minds according to a design of our own making that is not fully engaged with His truth, purposes, and plans. And therein great danger crouches in wait for us. This zone of friction between our truth and God’s truth is nothing new:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7 (NKJV)
Years later in the story we find Joseph, a rightly pruned and inwardly beautiful oak of righteousness, standing before his kneeling, formerly unmerciful and conniving brothers sincerely uttering one of the most heart-touching proclamations in all of the Bible, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” Genesis 50:20 (NKJV)
Talk about a 180 over the course of Joseph’s life. How did such a remarkable change take place in this man of God’s heart?
“For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” Hebrews 12:6 (NKJV)
“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” John 15:2, 5 (NKJV)
We must therefore be vigilant and mindful that there is a personal cost to be found in the pruning as the Lord transforms us to become an oak of righteousness bearing fruit for His good purposes and glory. To think otherwise is to tempt the crouching lion patiently awaiting you up around the next dimly lit intersection of your journey. Unless we actively engage and daily employ the wisdom found in Psalm 119:105 (NKJV), “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” we risk becoming dinner for the lion. Or did you think his roar was for another?
I love this quote by Charles Spurgeon: “God does not need your strength; He has more than enough on His own. He asks for your weakness; He has none of that.” Let us be careful thinking we know what a beautiful oak of righteousness should look like. My thinking has been turned inside out and upside down about this. I now realize such a tree is indeed exceedingly beautiful and immensely strong, but not outwardly as I once considered, but rather in its inner most parts. Outwardly it bears the glorious marks and scars of a life beautifully transformed for Christ’s sake resulting in a less than ideal appearance according to the world. Yes, my early visions of such a tree were shallowly rooted lacking understanding. A true Isaiah 61:3 tree’s outward appearance can’t help but reflect the Lord’s careful and purposeful pruning made beautiful in its scars through the inward strength and intimacy created when someone has been around the block of life a time or two with the Lord. As the saying goes, “That’s gonna leave a mark.” And indeed what beautiful marks they are in the Lord’s hands are they not?
Lord, bend and prune me as You see fit like You did so long ago with Your servant Joseph, so that I too will one day be an oak of righteousness, a planting of Yours, that You may be glorified according to Your purposes and plans for my life. When I am tempted to doubt and lose hope when my preconceived vision of how things are supposed to look don’t line up with Your truth and purposes, bring to my mind and heart these verses: “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Romans 8:28-29 (NKJV). “Let me seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in Your sight.” Micah 6:8 In Your Son, our Savior’s name, amen!
Lauren Daigle, “Trust in You” from the album “How Can It Be”