The Beauty of Botany

I’ve just returned this morning from a flying visit to my daughter in Cambridge, England. Yesterday morning was spent drinking in the impressive architecture of the magnificent Ely Cathedral. After lunch we spent an hour walking around Cambridge Botanical Gardens.

Sadly, after the £5 ($6) dollar entrance ticket, as we probably should have realised, the gardens were a little disappointing: apart from a few cherry blossoms, and a ‘host of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze’, very little else had begun to bud or bloom, in these earliest days of Spring.

Yet, in spite of the lack of colour, in the extensive lawns and lakes, and beyond the occasional splash or flap of the local Mallard ducks, the trip was not in vain: our meander through the ‘glasshouse’, for the Indian Sub-Continent display of tropical plants, was worth the ticket price alone.

There were a few intimidating triffids that put out blossoms in your face; the cactus section was amazing (not quite sure how Arizona sneaked into to the sub-continental botanical area); but the piece de resistance was the exhibition of dozens of orchid subspecies that lit up the display with their delicate colours and resplendent, ornamental, forms.

Almost every shade of purple, red, yellow, orange, pink, and splashes of other colours besides, was present; added to this were welcoming dorsal and lateral sepals, with main petals left and right; it would be remiss to neglect to mention the thick curvature of the ovary, and the more fragile stigma, anther and pollen which comprised the magnificent centrepiece; I was left aghast and stunned but very sure of this – if I was a butterfly or bee in the tropics of the sub-continent, I would find these floral glories impossible to resist!

My preparation for my recent series on ‘the Six Days of Genesis’ has, by the grace of God, helped to tune my heart more closely to the LORD’s symphonic excellence in glories of creation. If any reflective humble heart would pause to study an orchid for a few moments, there is enough in this little miniature vegetable world to move a soul with eyes and voice to join the parochetes in song.

There is so much that goes into perceiving floral beauty: the full spectrum of colours Yahweh made in light creation; the formation of the eyeball with anatomy, chemistry, physiology of the ten cellular layers of the retina; the optic neuronal pathways that criss-cross near the pituitary and radiate in the cerebral cortex; and that’s before we come to the Mendelian Genetics of orchidic sub-species to create ocular delights. If Muslims are not ashamed to cry ‘Allahu Akbar’ at their crimes, surely those who know the true Triune Deity, can say to their Creator: ‘The Lord is The Greatest!’

With us, in the ‘hothouse’, were a number of school children accompanied by teachers or parents. No doubt they had mixed reactions to their botanical gardens field-trip. Some of the children were perched on stools, drawing sketches of the orchids and other plant exhibits. Others were pointing wide-eyed, and relating their excitement to their mentors. The usual one or two, sadly in my view, looked a bit fidgety and bored.

As a ‘would-be’ amateur naturalist, I began to think for a moment how pleasant it would to be given to horticulture or have a full-time job as a botanist: to while away hours, perhaps even in retirement, exploring the different species, experimenting with their genetics, planting and potting, studying and sketching, lecturing and publishing, in this fascinating field.

Truly I can say, during my hour in the Gardens in Cambridge, that ‘My heart was  exceedingly full with the created Glory of God’. As I left the greenhouse and made for the exit with my wife, I began to reflect on something Solomon had said. In Ecclesiastes he recounts how, guided by the vast, expansive, endowment of the wisdom God had given him, he, as just ‘one string to his bow’, in his spare time as king, became a semi-professional botanist, fruitier, forester and horticulturalist.

“I made great works, I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees,” Ecclesiastes 2.4-6. The botanical gardens of Solomon, in Jerusalem, were surely a sight to delight the heart and on which to feast the eyes.

Having planted out his paradise (the persian word for park), 1 Kings 4.33-34 recount how vast numbers of foreign students came to the University of Jerusalem to hear his lectures on Plant Biology. “He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall.” Perhaps he didn’t use terms like xylem, phloem, chlorophyll or pollen, but his study of bark, and the medicinal qualities of herbs, no doubt took the breath from those gathered in attendance.

Yet, having drooled over daffodils, and opined on orchids, Solomon discovered rather rapidly there must be more to life – sepals and seeds cannot satisfy the soul: they only go so far, to leave us without excuse, or for believers that see God’s grandeur, to bring us brief respite, to admire the creatures of Christ, amidst the strain and stress of life.

We hear the bittersweet note sounding in Ecclesiastes 2.11: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Neither triffids or orchids can fulfil the longing on the heart whose rest, in truth, is only found in Christ, the perfect object of faith.

This gives us a fresh perspective on his sweetest ‘Song of songs’: it doesn’t really matter whether we view this choral-poetic gem as marital, typical or allegorical – fulfilment of true soul-ravishing love can never be complete, until the believer beholds the beauty, and is enfolded in the bosom, of the Beloved “in whom we have redemption the forgiveness of sin”, Ephesians 1.6-7. It is only when, by sovereign grace alone, we experience the love of ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’ that the heart goes out to God’s lily of delight crying ‘I am His, and He is mine’ that our hearts are ravished and refreshed by this more glorious revelation:

“With great delight I sat in His shadow, and His fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and His banner over me was love,” Song of Solomon 2.3b-4. No wonder our Christ is described as a “cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En Gedi”, 1.14 with “cheeks like beds of spices, mounds of sweet-smelling herbs” whose “lips are lilies” and whose “appearance is like Lebanon, choice as cedars”, 5.13,15.

Simply put, no physical botany can compare to the spiritual beauty of our Saviour the Lord Jesus as budding in the Law, Prophets and Psalms, and whose full, fragrant, blossoms perfume the pages of the Gospels, Epistles and Apocalypse. Parks are part of the precious heritage of our culture. Yet, glorious though gardens are, they are fleeting and fading compared to the eternal wealth and splendour of the panoramic vistas of the most excellent Nazarene: in all the ornament of his Offices, perfection of His Person, wonder of His Works, worth of His Words, and the alluring charm of His character, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the ‘Fairest of Ten Thousand’, whose leaf can never wither and whose flower will never fade.

The application is simple. Is it a simple, straightforward choice, between an hour in a park or in His Book? Better by far is time spent in study of the Saviour! Are we faced with a choice between a Sabbath afternoon stroll in the woods or being prepared properly for an evening service when Christ opens His mouth to speak? More eternal, lasting, benefit is to be located not in woods but worship. Give yourself to the revelation of Christ.

Friends, brothers, sisters and fellow servants of the One whom God has anointed with the most exquisite spiritual floral fragrances – Will you give yourself to His Word more and more? Will you present all your highest, chiefest, most fervent, devotions, energies and gifts to King Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father?

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