WORD STUDY – WORM – תולע
Isaiah 41:14 Fear not, thou worm Jacob, [and] ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the LORD, and thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
There are a couple unusual things about this passaged. One that really stands out is that God refers to Israel two times. The first reference is to Jacob and the second to Israel. Why does God use two different names for His people? The other thing is that God calls Jacob a worm. That is pretty insulting on God’s behalf. The worm has traditionally been a symbol of insignificance. It just doesn’t make sense to say “Fear not you insignificant Jacob.” Jacob and Israel were anything but insignificant to God.
I was reading in the Talmud in Berachot 13a where the sages teach that Jacob means supplanter and deceitful and Israel means Prince of God. When the people are in a rebellious state, or they are focused on the things of this natural world, God refers to His people as Jacob and when the people are in obedience to God and following Him, He refers to His people as Israel. Here in Isaiah 41:14 God is referring to both. He is speaking not only to those in obedience to Him but also those who are living in disobedience. He does, however, refer to Israel, the ones in obedience to Him as men and Jacob, the ones in disobedience to Him as worms.
Still, that seems too harsh. I can’t believe God is stooping to calling his disobedient children insulting names. Perhaps this is not an insult but a description. The word worm is tola’. Its Semitic origins lie with the Phoenicians who were merchants and seafaring people. They were also into forestry. Solomon purchased the cedar wood for the temple from the Phoenicians. It was known in the Mediterranean area as Cedrus liabani which was exploited for use in building structures and ships. That is so long as the LT (tola’s – worms) did not bore holes into them. You can’t exactly build a ship with wood that is full of worm holes.
What the sages noted was that these little innocent creatures could wreak havoc to the shipping and building industry. They did it with their mouths. Their mouth were very soft and tender, yet they could bore through solid wood. To call someone a worm would be to say that they use their mouths to be very destructive. Yet, in the context of Isaiah 41:4 it would appear that the idea of a wood boring worm has a different idea. The sages teach that God is saying that He is going to protect and deliver these disobedient people who use their mouths to pray. Oddly, God is not saying these people are praying from their hearts, but from their mouths and yet God will hear their prayers anyways.
This verse hit this old self-righteous Hebrew teacher right between the eyes. I have always been critical, not outwardly, but quietly and inwardly of people who pray from notes, pray in public with beautiful, poetic prayers and I think, “They are only praying from the lips, not from the hearts.” This past weekend our new President was inaugurated and there were many prayers said. In fact I don’t recall an inauguration that had so many prayers from different sources, not even the born again Jimmy Carter had so many religious leaders prayer. This was the first time in 32 years that rabbi prayed at an inauguration. A Catholic cardinal prayed, an evangelical evangelist prayed and, good grief, a prosperity teacher prayed. I am sitting there thinking, “Yeah, their big moment, before the world, these religious leaders get to display their pious stuff.” You can bet God took me to task with that attitude. He led me right to Isaiah 41:14 and called me a worm. After all, have I not been guilty of praying from my mouth and not my heart? I mean who hasn’t? I had a big board in my eye while talking about the speck in my brother and sister’s eyes.
I saw the new President who said some nasty things about the former President during the campaign and the former President who said some nasty things about the new President during the campaign reach out and warmly shake each other’s hand. Maybe they were good actors but I could not help but think that in that moment there had to be something of warmth in each other’s heart. Maybe I am wrong, but I could not help but see something genuine between them, respect, a hint of friendship, a hint of forgiveness? I don’t know but I am sure their hearts were touched.
I believe that is what God is saying about worm Jacob. Maybe they are in disobedience, maybe they are praying with their mouths and not their hearts, but God is saying: “At least they are talking to me.” Apparently that is enough for God to deliver them.
I remember a former movie star who lived her life totally ignoring God and never giving Him a thought. One day she learned her daughter was dying. She got into her car, drove out to the desert and when she was totally alone she began to scream at God at the top of her lungs. She used every vulgar, curse word she could think of and she cursed God, Jesus and said if she knew there was a Holy Spirit she would have cursed Him too. Then after she finished, there was that strange quiet you hear after a lot of yelling and all of a sudden she heard a tender audible voice which said: “That is the first time you’ve spoken to me, I love you.”
God doesn’t call us His children for no reason at all. What better way to describe a relationship where a child can curse their parents, hate them, steal from them, despise them and then when they are in trouble they cry out: “Mom, Dad, please help me.” What parent will not run to that child’s aid. I know what you are thinking: “Oh, I know parents who would not.” Well, I know a Bible verse also: Psalms 27:10: “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.” God’s love far exceeds that of a parent. No matter how wayward, He will run out to meet you, kiss your neck, place a ring on your finger and welcome you home.
I have often heard people say; “God will not hear your prayers because you are living in sin.” I don’t find that to be Scriptural at all. What I find is Isaiah 41:4 where even a worm Jacob will be heard by God if he just uses his mouth to call out to Him. God will hear that prayer and that mouth or prayer will bore holes in solid wood.