Jeremiah 4:3-4. ‘For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart.”’
Hosea 10:12. “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, ‘till He comes and rains righteousness on you.
This article owes its genesis to a walk I took last summer along a path that runs through two fields near my home. It was during the dry spell that came at the end of June. In the first field the farmer was growing maize, and the corn really was ‘as high as an elephant’s eye.’ Although there had been no rain for a while the maize was growing splendidly as the roots sucked up the moisture and nourishment hidden within the ground. The field was doing what a field is supposed to do- it was providing a crop and the farmer would soon have a harvest from it- thirty-fold, sixty-fold or a hundred-fold, I don’t know, but that is what such fields are for- to produce fruit; a crop, a harvest.
But when I walked into the second field, it was a very different story; there was no crop. There had been at one point; I could see the stalks where the maize had been cut down by a combine the year previously, but since then the farmer had left the field to lie fallow. Now because of the hot, dry weather that we had been having, the surface of the ground had been baked hard. Underneath it might have been soft, but there was a sort of hard skin on the surface, and almost nothing was growing- just some scrub and a few weeds- no crop.
A day or two later, there was a torrential rainstorm and I thought, well, that rain will turn the field into a real quagmire, but to my surprise, when I walked through the second field the next day, the ground was still as dry and hard as ever. The rain had not penetrated that hard outer skin and had flowed off the field and into the ditch. Now imagine if the farmer had dropped seed on that land hoping for a harvest. Fat chance! The seed would have remained on the surface of the ground and either the birds would have eaten it or the rain would have washed it away. The seed needs to go deep down into the ground before it will germinate.
So what does the farmer need to do to get a crop out of that field? He must break up the fallow ground. The field is fertile but he must break up that hard-baked surface and expose the soft ground underneath. Today, I guess that a farmer would use some sort of heavy automatic plough, but in Biblical times, I imagine that he would have had to break up the ground and the clods with a hoe before he could plough, and back-breaking work it would have been. But then the seed could have been laid in the furrows and the rain would soak deep down into the ground to make it fertile.
So it was while I was looking at this field that the texts from Hosea and Jeremiah came into my mind, and I preached it to myself as I strolled along the path that day, and I now pass it on to you.
What does it mean for Christians to break up their fallow ground? Well, I believe that the fallow ground in this case is the hearts of believers. Before we were converted, we were dead in trespasses and sin. We had a heart of stone- there was nothing to be done with it. The field of our lives, if I may put it this way, was a spiritual desert. Unless God in His mercy had intervened, there would have been no hope for us (cf. Eph 2:1-3; Titus 3:3-5). But listen to God speaking in Ezek 36:25-27: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgements and do them.” God has taken away our heart of stone and made our hearts fertile ground, with a view to our bearing spiritual fruit. ‘You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should remain’ (John 15:16). Believers are to be a fruitful field; we are to produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives: ‘Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Gal 5:22-23). So what goes wrong? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that some of my readers may associate themselves with what I’m going to say.
Is it not the truth that the world keeps coming between us and the Lord? That we get so tied up with jobs, family, pension schemes, finance, holidays, whatever, so that we forget to put the Lord Jesus Christ at the very forefront of our lives? None of the things that I’ve listed is wrong; they are good and necessary, but is there not a danger that they keep us from the Lord. The poet Wordsworth knew something about this:-
‘The world is too much with us, late and soon; Getting and spending we waste our powers.’
The world crowds in upon us so that we have no time for private devotions. Our Bible reading, if we don’t give it up altogether, becomes perfunctory. We do it because we have committed ourselves to it, but when we’ve finished, we say, “Well, that’s it done for another night,” but we don’t meditate over what we’ve read and we don’t pray about it and so it does us no good. If you don’t understand what you’ve read, do you pray and puzzle over the text, and maybe look it up in a commentary or ask one of your church leaders about it? Or do you say, “Gosh! This is hard going!” and put the Bible down and go and do something else? And so we quench the Holy Spirit, and our hearts become calloused and hardened, and the Lord says, “Break up your fallow ground. It is time to seek the LORD!”
And what about your prayers? Are they earnest, thankful, passionate, pleading with God that He would make you useful in His service? Or are they increasingly perfunctory, automatic and short? And do you find them being answered less and less? Well, Shakespeare knew that answer to that one when he wrote in Hamlet, ‘Prayers without thought never to heaven go.’ If your heart and mind are not engaged in your prayers, what right have you to expect God to answer them? And the Lord says, “Break up your fallow ground. It is time to seek the LORD!”
Moreover, are there not so many things to distract Christians today? How easy it is to pick up a magazine or turn on the television, and you can be wafted away into another world- and usually an unwholesome one. Listen to God speaking to us through Paul in Phil 4:8. ‘Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy- meditate on these things.’ What can we say today? If there is anything nasty, anything unwholesome, whatever is vile; whatever is corrupt or evil, if anything is worthy of condemnation, stick it on the B.B.C. at prime viewing time. But if Christians watch such things day after day, their hearts harden, they grieve the Holy Spirit and He increasingly distances Himself from them, leaving only weeds and scrub in their spiritual lives. And the Lord says, ‘Break up your fallow ground. It is time to seek the Lord!’ And He says, ‘Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap in mercy.’
Now, what about church? Did you wake up last Lord’s Day morning and think, “Great! It’s Sunday. Church today!”? Listen to what the Psalmist says: ‘How lovely is Your tabernacle, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God…….For a day in Your courts are better than a thousand [elsewhere]. I would rather be doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness’ (Psalm 84:1-2, 10). This man can’t wait to get to church and worship God. How is it with you, Brethren? Do you get cross because the hymns are too old or too new, or too fast or too slow? Is the sermon too long? Do you not like this preacher as much as that preacher? Is there not perhaps a hard crust over your heart so that when God rains down His word upon you it doesn’t get through to your heart, but goes into your head and out again without affecting your life? And the Lord says, ‘Break up your fallow ground’ and through Jeremiah He says, ‘Circumcise the foreskin of your heart.’ Now what does that mean? Well, what God is saying is that there can be this covering over our hearts which de-sensitizes us to the things of God, and we must remove that covering so that our hearts are open and tender and sensitive before the Lord.
Now note that it is we who have to do these things. There is a song that goes, ‘Purify my heart,’ but if we pray, “Lord, purify my heart,” or “Lord, break up my fallow ground” and then think that we’ve sorted the problem, we’re missing the point. If a parent tells his child to tidy his room, and the chid says, “No! You do it for me,” That’s both rudeness and disobedience. No, breaking up our fallow ground is something we have to do for ourselves. And it’s not something that’s easy to do. Just as that Hebrew farmer had to sweat and struggle to break up that hard crust of dry earth that had formed over the fertile ground, so we must battle to break the habits of worldliness and indifference that have blunted our love for our precious Lord, for it is clear that those very habits of Christians in Britain and America today are reaping judgement from the Lord. God may be doing amazing things in Africa, Asia and South America with thousands coming to Christ every day, but it is clear that He is not with us just now, and the reason is not hard to find. ‘Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He will not hear’ (Isaiah 59:1-2). If you want to see the Lord coming in power on our land again, as He did in the days of Wesley and Whitefield, you need to break up your fallow ground.
So just how do you break up your fallow ground? Well surely it is necessary first to look into your own hearts, to see in what aspects of your lives you are lying fallow. Paul told the Corinthians, ‘If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged’ (1Cor 11:31). Then when you identify your shortcomings, you need to come before the Lord in prayers of repentance. Now repentance means a change of heart- you need to go to Him and say, “Lord, I confess that I’ve not loved you as I should; I’ve not placed You in the very forefront of my life. But now, with Your help, I’m going to put that right. Give me the strength to do whatever I need to do to get myself right with You.” Then you need to change your ways. You need to give yourself that extra time for prayer and reading the Bible and fight against wandering thoughts while you are doing them. You need to make a special effort to attend as many of the stated meetings of your church as you can. The Puritans used to say that the Lord’s day was the market day (or shopping day) of the soul; that the teaching that Christians received then would sustain them all through the week as they meditated on it. You need to place yourself under the authority of the preached word instead of standing in judgement upon it. You need to break those bad habits that are grieving the Holy Spirit, and stop distracting yourself with things that quench Him.
If you are sincere and set yourself to do these things and keep praying for God’s help , then He will give you the strength to carry them through and you will be able to say with Paul, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:13). And look at the blessing that God promises you! ‘Break up your fallow ground. It is time to seek the LORD, ‘til He comes and rains righteousness upon you.’ Hear what He says about your fallow ground in Isaiah 55:13: ‘Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, and instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle tree.’ And listen to what He promises through Malachi: ‘”Bring all the tithes into My storehouse…..and try Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “If I will not open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it’ (Mal 3:10). Let us take the Lord at His word and bring Him His full tithe of our time, our prayers and our service. How little blessing there has been in this country of ours for many years while the professing Church has turned away from God in so many ways! The Church needs to return to Him, to break up its fallow ground. It has to start somewhere. Why not with you and me?