Bible References: Psalm 83.13; Isaiah 17.13.
Two Bible citations named the tumbleweed. One was in Isaiah. There, Isaiah gave a prophecy (oracle) against Damascus. Damascus was the capital city in the kingdom of Aram. Isaiah noted that although the Arameans roared like surging water, when God rebukes them they are driven like a tumbleweed before the wind. Isaiah’s prophecy came true: Assyria defeated Arameans and overran their capital in 732 BC. Often, God used other kingdoms and nations as instruments of retribution.
Despite Isaiah being the most read and often most quoted Old Testament prophet, the tumbleweed description in Psalm 83 resonates with many Christians. This Psalm is a prayer attributed to Asaph; however, possibly he was the ancestor of the actual writer. The content of Psalm 83 indicates it may have been written in the years immediately before the Babylonian Exile. Psalm 83 is more an urgent prayer than a song. Asaph pleaded with God to treat Israel’s foes like tumbleweeds, a very unimportant landscape plant.
Psalm 83 takes the same form as several other psalms. First, the present situation is defined (verses 1-4). Second, the Lord is reminded how he gave victory to Israelites in similar situations in the past (verses 5-12). Finally, a specific request for help is outlined (verses 13-18).
Situation defined: God’s people (Israelites) were threatened by enemies. If God doesn’t defend them, they will be destroyed completely. The psalmist named ten nations who allied themselves against God’s chosen: Edom, Ishmaelites, Moab, Hagrites, Byblos, Ammon, Amalek, Philistia, Tyreans and Assyrians. Asaph pleaded for Israel’s safety in a way that made Israel’s circumstances God’s challenge. Asaph referred to Israel’s foes as God’s enemies, those who hated God and God’s people. According to Asaph, these ten nations formed an alliance against God.
Past victories from God: Asaph reminded God that he gave Israel victory over Canaanites (Jabin and Sisera) at the Kishon River. When the Midianites attempted to co-opt Israelites pastures, God gave Israel the ability to drive them out and kill their kings, Zebah and Zalmunna.
Request for help: Asaph pleads with God to destroy—blow away—enemy kingdoms who want to destroy God’s chosen people. Specifically, Asaph wrote, “make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind” (Psalm 83.13 NIV).
The Bible tumbleweed is identified as the Gundelia tournefortii, sometimes called a tumble thistle. Israeli botanists use the Hebrew name, galgal, while Arabs call it the a’kub.7 Although technically a thistle, the rolling nature of this moveable plant is key to both the Isaiah and Psalm reference. Tumbleweeds grow in wastelands and along roadsides from Mount Hermon and Golan in the north to the Negev hills and Eilat in the south. Tumbleweeds don’t grow well in the shade.
The tumbleweed fruit is a seed. After the fruit forms, thistle stems separate from roots. Because the tumbleweed is round, it rolls like a ball when driven by the wind. Seeds of dead fruits are dispersed by the rolling motion. Currently, young flower heads are removed and sold in Palestinian Authority markets where they supplement food of local people. Mature plants are used as camel fodder.
Symbolism of Tumbleweed
Action is the process of doing something in order to achieve a purpose.3 Synonyms are battle, and prosecute. God’s action was central in both places that tumbleweeds were named in the Bible. In Psalm 83.13 the psalmist pleaded for God to act, i.e., make Israel’s enemies like tumbleweeds in the wind. Isaiah (17.13) prophesied God’s action on behalf of Judah.
Asaph’s motivation for asking God to act on behalf of Israelites wasn’t only for the security of Israel, but for worldwide acknowledgement of God as the true God. Acknowledgment of God includes seeking God to learn about him, his teachings, and his commands.
Christians shouldn’t pray Psalm 83 against national enemies because Christianity is broader than national boundaries. Christians are the world-wide fellowship of believers. A Christian shouldn’t pray for the downfall of another. Christians can pray Psalm 83 against foes who act to destroy them and all traces of their faith.17 They can ask God to defeat these enemies’ plans in a way that persecutors seek and know God and accept Jesus as Savior.
A number of years ago, I was part of a large congregation attempting to buy our church property from the diocese. The diocese kept pushing the time back for final notification and sale closing. Church members became more anxious every day, then every hour. Quietly, our minister reminded us, “God is rarely early, but he is never late.”
Reflection: When we accept Jesus as our Savior, God accepts us as his children. That promise requires God to act on our behalf. Sometimes we want God, “to do something NOW!” God’s action isn’t always according to our timetable.
Copyright July 13, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth