God has a way with words. He loves alliterations, plays on words, the use of homophones, idioms, and poetry. Without a cultural context, however, we sometimes miss the full meaning of a phrase spoken in a culture or language not our own, even when translating it into one's native language. Communication has not only a language component but cultural and time components, too. This is true for God's chief choice of communication - the Bible.
Consider His conversation with a 19-year-old fellow in 629 BCE:
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.
The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that My word is fulfilled.”
~ Jeremiah 1:11-12 (NIV)
So Jeremiah says that he sees the branch of a tree.
God affirms that.
Then, God says that He's watching to see that His word is fulfilled.
What? Does that make any sense to those of us reading an English translation?
You Better Watch Out?
When I first read this chapter as a new believer, I saw verse 12 as a bit of a threat. After all, the God's Word Translation of the verse reads:
Then the LORD said to me, "Right. I am watching to make sure that my words come true."
Not unlike the warning in the holiday song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
"You better watch out. You better not cry.
You better not pout. I'm telling you why."
I wish I was kidding. I thought that Jeremiah was one terribly unlucky fellow. I perceived that God was a bit of a traffic cop or high school principal, monitoring Jeremiah's every move. And woe to the teenager if he didn't do what God was calling him to do.
But not so. Here is where an understanding of language, cultural context and time come becomes important. Jeremiah is a young Israeli and this conversation between Jeremiah and God takes place in the Hebrew language in 6th Century BCE. If we look at the same verses in the Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB), we see this:
Moreover the Devar Hashem came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a makel SHAQUD. Then said Hashem unto me, Thou hast well seen: for SHOQED I am over My Devar to carry it out.
~ Jeremiah 1:11-12, OJB
The OJB, a translation by Phillip Goble for English readers, preserves many of the Hebrew words. The word for "almond," used as an adjective to describe the type of branch (makel) seen by Jeremiah, is שָׁקֵ֖ד (pronounced shâ-kêd) in Hebrew. The word spoken by God is "watching" or "hastening," -- שֹׁקֵ֥ד (pronounced shô-kêd). When listening to the words in Forvo's Hebrew pronunciation dictionary, my English ears cannot tell the difference. They are, in fact, "homophones" - words that sound the same when spoken but mean different things.
In some cases, homophones can be used as a source of humor. It is much like what we see/hear in the poem "Faithless Sally Brown" by Thomas Hood:
His death, which happen'd in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll'd the bell.
Read that poem again...out loud. And when you stop laughing, you'll realize that, in Jeremiah 1:11-12, God is making a pun.
The God-Who-Makes-Puns chose the branch of an almond tree for a reason, not only to play a rhyming word game with His newest, youngest prophet. Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers puts it rather poetically:
Jeremiah "sees the almond-bough, with its bright pink blossoms and its pale green leaves, the token of an early spring rising out of the dreariness of winter."
To put it highly non-poetic terms: the almond tree is the Middle East's version of Punxsutawney Phil. It is the first tree to bloom, flowering in January (in a part of the world where January is the dead of winter), marking the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. It is called the "watcher," literally, the tree that "hastens to awake" (shâ-kêd) out of its winter sleep. Because of this early bloom, it is considered to be "intent" and "on the watch" to seize the first opportunity to bloom (Benson Commentary).
In that sense, God is giving Jeremiah neither instruction nor threat. Rather, God is providing information...with a wink. He is letting the prophet know what His intent is AND that He is the One who will carry out that intent. Verse 12's homophone "SHOQED" means, "I will hasten." In today's English vernacular, we would say, "I guarantee it" or "consider it done." If set on using a modern idiom, we might declare, "take that to the bank." But in 6th century BCE Hebrew vernacular, we would say, "I will almond-tree it."
No Bones About It
By saying, "I will almond-tree it," He not only speaks the Word, He also takes responsibility for making it come to pass. No bones about it (English idiom for "have no doubt"). He simply gave Jeremiah the privilege of recording it for history.
The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly. As to My word...consider it done!