Cultivating Grace: Notes from a County Antrim Garden

Taken in the thousands by Nebuchadnezzar to live in exile in Babylon, the people of God found themselves very far from home. It was for these people that God gave the prophet Jeremiah a message, clear and remarkably specific, and communicated in a letter:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Despite claims to the contrary being circulated by false prophets, God intended His people to remain in Babylon for some time. Theirs was not to be a short stay – a long weekend, or even a gap year – but rather, it would extend to a period of some seven decades. God instructed his people to settle down and get busy. They should build houses, make homes, and go about raising families and future generations. Such was the big picture, but there is one important detail I wish to focus on: God wanted His people to plant gardens. I wonder if the exiles found this surprising. Houses are one thing – everyone needs a roof over their head – but gardening and growing their own? Couldn’t they have gone to the market?

A number of years ago my husband and I bought a new home surrounded by a garden. One of the silver linings of working “remotely” during lockdowns has been the opportunity to spend more time looking after this little patch of land, and, with the encouragement and help of good friends, to turn our attention to its restoration after years of busyness and not a little neglect. As I have spent mornings, afternoons and evenings clearing and digging, planting and tending this garden, I’ve been thinking about the instruction to plant gardens that God gave to the exiles in Babylon. The two contexts seem worlds apart, but the rudiments of gardening must remain more or less the same.

There is no doubt that gardening is a source of constant hard work: it demands physical energy, the investment of time, and careful attention of the mind. It brings particular struggles too. As Genesis 3:17-19 reminds us, there are thorns and weeds and briars to contend with. There is also the possibility of exhaustion, and even injury; gardeners’ backs and knees really do keep physiotherapists busy. Despite this, there is no doubt that gardens are places of beauty, and that especially in cities, green spaces can offer respite and calm.

So what must it have been like for Adam and Eve to walk with God in the garden in the cool of the day? Even with all the effects of the Fall, gardens in our own time cause us to pause and look more closely at God’s work. Gardeners reap real rewards, not only in terms of the joy and satisfaction of seeing things grow, but in the currency of life lessons. As the exiles worked on their planting, perhaps they reflected as I have, and found their gardens to be places of learning. For, as the seventeenth-century theologian and horticulturalist Ralph Austen put it so eloquently:

the world is a great Library, and Fruit-trees are some of the Books wherein we may read and see plainely the Attributes of God, his Power, Wisdome, Goodness, etc. and be instructed and taught our duty towards Him in many things, even from Fruit-trees: for as trees (in a Metaphoricall sense) are Books, so likewise in the same sense they have a Voyce, and speak plainley to us, and teach us many good lessons … Their words go to the ends of the World.

Certainly, spending time in the garden has encouraged me to turn my mind and heart to the Creator, and to engage in sustained reflection on God’s working in our lives. It has helped me think too about how biblical writers harness metaphors from the world of horticulture to help us understand more of God’s character.

Throughout the life of the church, the world of the garden has proven to be a rich locus of development for believers, in body, mind and soul. For many people today, it is an encouragement to share in this respite that gardens can offer, especially in the times of challenge and uncertainty through which we are living. As Christians, we know that our encounters with the natural world are nothing less than encounters with the handiwork of our God.

There are many gardens in Scripture, but it is framed with pictures of two that are quite unique. While Eden, the first garden, is filled with beauty, it is tainted with the sinfulness of our humanity. By contrast, the picture of the New Jerusalem at the close of Revelation is one of an eternal garden, a city holding out the brightest of promises. This everlasting garden is a future home full of life and fruitfulness, healing and restoration. Until the fulfilment of this vision we look forward in wonder and anticipation.

Sharon Jones, a writer and educator, lives in Count Antrim, Northern Ireland. This post is excerpted from an article in the inaugural issue of The Round Tower Review.