My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. (Prov. 24:13)
Breakfast cupboards are a fairly recent invention. When my eyes run along the shelf immediately above my toaster, I’m faced with a whole range of options that would have been unknown to people a few hundred years ago. Jams, jellies, marmalades, preserves, and fruit curds require so much sugar that they were practically impossible until sugarcane started being produced commercially.
The same is true of chocolate spread. Marmite wasn’t eaten anywhere until the 20th century, and in most parts of the world it still isn’t. Since plenty of people are convinced that it is the closest equivalent to what evil tastes like, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Bovril was invented in 1870. Modern breakfast cereals began 20 years before that. So the only two things on my breakfast shelf that would have been recognized by George Washington or Napoleon are oats (and I have no idea who in my family actually eats those, although I have my suspicions) and the richest, sweetest item in the cupboard: honey.
Dancing Bees and the Creator God
Honey is astonishing. If I were to share a potluck meal with Shakespeare, Genghis Khan, Muhammad, Cleopatra, Queen Esther, Tutankhamun, and Abraham, we would be baffled or disgusted by many of the contributions, but we’d all come together over the golden jar in the middle. Honey lasts through the centuries; it never goes out of date, so if an enterprising archaeologist were to find a sealed pot of Stone Age honey in a cave somewhere, you would be able to spread it on your muffin for tea.
And both of these things are true because of the truly remarkable thing about it: honey is unprocessed. In our world, virtually everything we eat is treated, sterilized, cooked, or pasteurized and then combined with other things to make it more palatable. (If you’ve ever tried cutting all sugar or salt out of your diet, you’ll know how difficult it is to live without them.) But honey is almost unique in having no need for additives, flavorings, or preservatives. It is luxuriously sweet and delicious.
We have bees to thank for that. They rummage around inside flowers to find nectar, sometimes collecting honeydew as well, and digest it as they fly. On returning, the foragers perform a dance that explains to the others where they have found the nectar. The dance factors in the position of the sun relative to the food source, the distance they have flown, the quality of the food available, and even the speed of the wind. They pass the nectar on to their colleagues in the hive, who pass it around from bee to bee until it’s digested enough to be stored.
This takes up to twenty minutes. When it’s ready, they put it in the cells of the honeycomb and gradually raise its sugar content by evaporating the water, using the heat of their bodies and continually flapping their wings to keep the air circulating. When the sugar level is high enough to ensure that the honey won’t ferment, they seal the cell with wax and move on to the next one. As far as I know, nobody has ever published an academic paper proving the existence of God from the existence of bees, but someone probably should.
Nobody has ever published an academic paper proving the existence of God from the existence of bees, but someone probably should.
The result of this foraging, dancing, digesting, storing, heating, flapping, and waxing extravaganza is an amber-colored, viscous liquid as sweet as granulated sugar. It is sticky, rich, golden, and delicious. It brightens the eyes and enlivens the soul (1 Sam. 14:27–29). That’s why we use it as a complimentary term for words (honeyed), smells (honeysuckle), and voices (mellifluous) and an affectionate term for people we love (“Hi, honey”). It’s also why we share our enjoyment of it with Samson, raccoons, skunks, the Egyptian pharaohs, honey badgers, Solomon, and Winnie the Pooh.
And God is the honey maker. A God with no stomach, no tongue, no sweet tooth, and no need for calories came up with the properties of honey before he created atoms. He invented its color and its texture, imagined the way it would seep into the holes of crumpets, and pictured the indescribable flavors that would result when it was mixed with sea salt and turned into ice cream. He conceived of its spreadability, longevity, and medicinal properties. He foresaw the elaborate dance of the bees and smiled. Then he spoke it all into being, and behold, it was good.
Honey Reveals God’s Sweetness
Scripture never talks about divine sweetness or uses honey as an illustration of God. It would be so easily misunderstood: it would fuel our tendency to domesticate God and imagine him as a comfortable addition to our cozy lives, a flavoring we can opt for according to our mood, a spiritual condiment. (A glance at the contemporary church suggests we don’t need more encouragement in that direction.) Yet honey appears 60 times in the Bible, and in most cases it represents one of three things. Each reveals something of what, if we were not careful, we might call the sweetness of God.
1. God’s Land and Rescue
Honey represents God’s land and rescue. If we read the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, most of us focus (rightly) on those glorious three expressions of the divine name: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 6), “I am who I am” (v. 14), and “the Lord” (v. 15). But the promise Moses receives that day, and later relays to the Israelites, is this: “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 8; see also v. 17).
This is a beautifully poetic way of describing redemption from captivity into freedom. Israel has known slavery and bondage, but the Lord is rescuing her into sweetness and abundance. She has eaten bitter herbs, but she will eat milk and honey. That promise is at the heart of the Old Testament story, which is why it is repeated so often (Ex. 13:5; 33:3; Lev. 20:24; Num. 13:27; 14:8; Deut. 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20; Josh. 5:6; Jer. 11:5; 32:22; Ezek. 20:6, 15). And it’s one of the most common biblical ways of describing God’s commitment to bless and rescue his people. When our circumstances are dire, we still worship a God who takes the vinegar of our situation and turns it into honey. Even when our present is bitter—and in this age it often is—our future is sweet.
2. God’s Law and Word
Honey represents God’s law and Word. David says the rules of the Lord that warn and guide us are “sweeter also than honey, than drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10). The psalmist sings to God, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). Both Ezekiel and John describe visions in which they eat the scroll of God’s Word and it tastes as sweet as honey in their mouths (Ezek. 3:3; Rev. 10:9–10).
So reading and reflecting on Scripture is like plunging your spoon, your dipper, or perhaps even your hand into the syrupy depths of a honeycomb to scoop out and eat the contents. The Word of God is rich, tasty, satisfying, and enjoyable. It brightens the eyes and enlivens the soul. It doesn’t need any flavorings or preservatives to make it taste better, and you cannot add to it or take away from it. It lasts through the centuries and never goes out of date. You and I can take the portions of Scripture that archeologists have found in caves, even thousands of years ago, and they are just as enlivening today as they were when they were first written. In a world filled with processed products and hybrid wisdom, the words of God are pure, golden, and luxuriously sweet.
In a world filled with processed products and hybrid wisdom, the words of God are pure, golden, and luxuriously sweet.
3. God’s Gifts and Grace
Honey represents God’s gifts and grace. The first time we encounter honey in the Bible, it’s as a gift, given by one person to gain favor with another. This pattern recurs several times: from Jacob to Joseph (Gen. 43:11), from the people of Mahanaim to David (2 Sam. 17:27–29), from Jeroboam to Ahijah (1 Kings 14:3), and from Israel to God (2 Chron. 31:5). But when God gives honey to us, it’s not to find favor with us or to trade it for something else. God doesn’t need anything from anybody. Rather he gives honey—and his gracious gifts in general—simply to bless.
It’s hard to think of two more unmerited, one-sided gifts in the Bible than manna, which God produces out of the clear blue sky, and the water that gushes forth from the rock in the wilderness. The Israelites simply arrive somewhere, moaning and exhausted, and God provides immeasurably more than they can ask or imagine. So it may be significant that the manna tastes of honey (Ex. 16:31) and the water is later described as “honey from the rock” (Ps. 81:16). Honey, it seems, is a symbol of the abundant sweetness of God’s gracious gifts, which cannot be earned, horse-traded, bought, or exchanged. It can only be received.
We are called not just to learn about God but to experience him. We are invited to taste his sweetness and allow his golden richness—beautifully expressed in his rescue, his Word, and his grace—to brighten our eyes and refresh our souls. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8).