Symbolism of Thorns: The Cause of Suffering
This study searches the Scriptures to determine the relationship between “thorns” and the principle of “pain and suffering.” The research reveals that God issues “thorns” to produce repentance that leads to life. In contrast, the adversary of God administers suffering to bring death and destruction. The findings conclude that eventually YHVH will eliminate all “thorns” from the experiences of His children.
The research began with a desire to penetrate a deeper understanding of the imagery and symbolism of “thorns” as presented in Scripture. I examined each usage of “thorn” (ק֥וֹץ, qots, Strong’s #6975) in the Hebrew Scriptures. I extended the study into the New Testament using the Greek word for “thorn” (ἀκανθῶν, akanthon, #173), the word used in the Septuagint as an equivalent to ק֥וֹץ. Additional evidence for the concluding thoughts came from “pain” (עִצָּבוֹן֙, itstsabon, #6093), a key word associated with ק֥וֹץ, along with סִיר֥ (sir, #5518) a Hebrew synonym for ק֥וֹץ. A pattern emerged that contributes to the understanding of how God is working to redeem humankind and to bring them into His presence in righteousness.
Harmony in the Garden
The Hebrew Scriptures portray the initial relationship between YHVH and His creation as one of harmony. Elohim creates humankind in His image, enabling humanity to interact with Him. In this relationship humankind functions as the pinnacle of His creation. This is so unique and so significant that Scripture marks it with the first occurrence of poetry and the literary device of repetition.
In Genesis 1:27 the Hebrew word “created” (bara) appears three times, emphasizing the significance of humankind’s creation. The concept of being created in the image of Elohim appears twice.
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Gen 1:27
The Garden of Eden is the set-apart place where humanity can experience intimacy with God (Gen 2:8). It is here, in the presence of God, that humankind first hears the voice of YHVH and receives divine direction. In the context of the Garden, God commissions humankind to be His servant, functioning in His image and preserving divine harmony. To accomplish this task humankind is to cultivate, work or serve in the Garden; each person is to keep, guard or to watch carefully over the set-apart place. Humanity’s task is to function as a priesthood. Therefore, the delight contained within the unity of the Garden appears to be contingent upon humankind’s obedience.
Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden (delight) to cultivate it and to keep it. Gen 2: 15
Before long, humankind rebels against the Creator. Consequently YHWH places a curse upon the ground that releases the growth of thorns. These prickly plants create hardship for humankind and disrupt harmony in the Garden. Thorns are hard to handle, and inflict pain when touched; they are inedible, undesirable and worthless (2 Sam 23:6).
Is there a reason why thorns spring up in association with humankind’s rebellion and not another weed? Perhaps the answer lies within the root word for “thorns” which is קוּץ meaning “to loathe.” This word appears in Leviticus 20:23. It is here that YHWH tells the Israelites to obey Him, to follow His decrees, and not to follow the pagan customs that He “loathes.” Such behaviour produces a separation from God and distorts the image in which He created humankind. Therefore, after humanity rebels in the Garden, a plant arises out of the ground that reflects YHWH’S perspective on rebellion; it is something that He loathes, something that is undesirable.
Why do pain and suffering accompany the appearance of thorns? The Hebrew word עִצָּבוֹן֙ expresses the pain that is experienced in the context of the curse, in both the toil of obtaining food and in the labour of childbearing. In other words, the painful labour of עִצָּבוֹן֙ is now associated with life.
This Hebrew word occurs only three times in Genesis and its significance lies within the meaning of its root עָצַב (atsab, #6087). It can have a double meaning: “to hurt, grieve, pain or distress” as well as “to shape or fashion.” Therefore, contained within this word is a possible hint that YHVH will use the pain of the “thorn” to restore the image of humanity.
Due to rebellion, humankind cannot remain in the presence of God. The tragedy of expulsion from the Garden occurs and YHWH places cherubim to guard the entrance to the tree of life. Estrangement replaces intimacy. Yet, there is hope! YHWH Elohim issues a token covering for humanity, along with a prophetic promise of future restoration:
And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you (the serpent) on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel. Gen 3:15
YHWH’S Use of “Thorns”
YHWH initiates the plan of restoration. “The seed of the woman” will create a people who will separate themselves from the world and function as a kingdom of priests. They will become a holy nation. They will watch over YHWH’S creation and serve Him faithfully in a set-apart place. This is the call of Israel.
Soon after entering into a covenant with the One who created them, Israel strays from her commitment. Just like her forerunners in the Garden, Israel rebels against YHWH. Now YHWH sends prophets to address Israel’s unfaithfulness and to draw the people back to Him. The prophets warn Israel about the “thorns.”
Hosea is sent to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He pleads with the people, asking them to forsake their harlotry and to return to YHWH (Hos 2:2). He states that YHWH is prepared to hedge them in with a wall of “thorns” (סִיר֥) in order to protect them from their worldly pursuits (Hos 2:6-7).
Amos also addresses the matter of Israel’s upcoming judgment. He associates the hedge of “thorns” with the enemy nation that will take her captive. He does this through the dual usage of the word סִיר֥ (sir), a synonym to ק֥וֹץ. Hosea uses סִיר֥ to mean a “thorn”; Amos uses the same word to mean a “hook.”
Therefore, behold, I will hedge up her way with thorns,
And I will build a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths.” (Hos 2:6)
The Lord God has sworn by His holiness, ‘Behold, the days are coming upon you when they will take you away with meat hooks, and the last of you with fish hooks.’ Amos 4:2
Through the artistic use of the Hebrew language, the image of suffering inflicted by the “thorn” is actually contained within the Hebrew word itself. The word סִיר֥, which refers to Israel’s enemy as a “thorn,” can also mean a “hook.” This imagery apparently alludes to Assyria, a very cruel enemy nation that would eventually conquer the Northern Kingdom. It was their custom to drag prisoners with ropes attached to hooks that fastened to the captive’s nose or lip.
It seems that Israel’s fate is sealed. Without repentance, eviction from the Land is certain, similar to what her forerunners experienced in the Garden!! Yet, both Hosea and Amos continue to prophesy about a future deliverance. Therefore, we can conclude that YHWH’S use of thorns is not to destroy Israel; rather, His goal is to save His people when they begin to assimilate into the world.
The cycle repeats itself. Once again, humankind is being evicted from the presence of God. Humanity is inadequate to deal with the issue of sin. “Thorns” appear and suffering occurs!! Is there a solution??
YHWH’S plan continues to unfold. Only He can provide a solution to humanity’s dilemma! It is Yeshua, the Messiah, who takes the sin upon Himself; He spares humankind and takes the punishment. In exchange, the Messiah gives humankind His righteousness, along with a deposit of His Spirit that serves as a pledge for complete restoration in the future.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Cor 5:21
Through the crucifixion the Messiah accepts the divine curse upon Himself; this is illustrated by the crown of thorns that rested upon His head (Matt 27:29). He redeems humanity from the “thorns” of this world and brings freedom to whoever calls upon His name. Clearly, through the Messiah there is power to deal with the issue of sin! Harmony with YHWH is being restored.
3. Apostle Paul
A “thorn of the flesh” afflicted the apostle Paul; but YHWH refused to remove it in spite of Paul’s three requests for Him to do so. Even though the exact nature of the affliction is unknown, the “thorn” benefited Paul; due to the extraordinary nature of his revelation it served to keep him humble and close to YHWH.
In contrast, those who opposed Paul’s message of salvation inflicted great sorrow upon him. This pain came from the “thorns” of the adversary; in spite of their severity Paul endured the sufferings. He considered them minor in comparison to the glory of the Messiah’s future kingdom.
“Thorns” from the Adversary
1. False Prophets
The Messiah compares the false prophets to ravenous wolves that arise from among the people; He also associates them with “thorns” (Matt 7:15-16). They are self-proclaimed prophets who believe that Elohim sent them; but in reality, they carry the spirit of anti-Christ and mislead many.
The use of perverse speech by false prophets serves the ungodly nature of their self-interests: to draw people away from the message of salvation in order to gain disciples for themselves (Acts 20: 29-30). By denying the Messiah they lead many into destruction and death which represents the fruit of the adversary.
Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. John 8: 24
2. Cares of the World
The Messiah compares “thorns” from the adversary to those who hear the Word of God but allow the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth to choke it out. Consequently, their lives remain unfruitful and they do not display the righteousness of the Messiah (Mat 13:22). In other words, the “thorns” keep them from having victory over the curse that brings pain, suffering and death.
YHWH uses “thorns” to fuel a refining fire that burns away impurities within His children. In other words, YHWH will often use the hardships of life to remove rebellion from His children and re-establish harmony with them. The parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates this concept. Hardships awaken “the son of reckless living.” He comes to his senses and the attitude of his heart changes as the refining fire burns. Then, with humble repentance he returns to his father and reconciliation occurs (Luke 15:17-24).
Since thorns are considered worthless they are often burned. This pictures the destiny of those who reject Messiah; their fate is judgment by fire (Jn. 15:6). This is the fate of the false prophet who is symbolized, not only as a “thorn,” but also as a tree that bears bad fruit (Matt 7:15-19). This is also the fate of those who have fallen away and for whom repentance cannot renew; they have become as “thorns;” they too are destined for fire (Heb 6:4-8). The person whose name does not appear in the book of life will face eternal judgment in a lake of fire, the second death (Rev 20:14-15).
Eventually, YHWH will eliminate the “thorns” of the refining fire; He will also eliminate the pain and suffering sent from the adversary. A new outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28) will replace the refining fire and all its discomfort; then YHWH will heal the apostasy (Hos 14:4). Harmony with YHWH will then be restored!
And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mountains, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. Rev. 21:4
This study concludes that YHWH will eliminate all thorns, whether they originate from Him for refining purposes or from the adversary for destruction. This occurs when harmony between YHWH and humankind is re-established. Therefore, the Scriptures portray “thorns” as serving YHWH’S desire to shape and fashion a people into the image that was lost in the Garden. These are the ones who will serve Him as priests, who will stand in His presence, and will see His face. Then the delight of YHWH will be established forever.