Honey is one of the sweetest natural foods God has provided us, so it is no surprise that in scripture, it is used as a comparison of sweetness. However, modern society has no conception of the true value and use of sweet things because cheap sugar has been made so abundant. People want ever sweeter foods and then refuse to eat things that are truly nourishing, having lost their taste for them. So something that is extremely sweet can also be a temptation.
The first mention of honey (Gen 43:11) is as a gift along with the “best fruits in the land” plus spices and nuts, all delicious and desirable foods. Twenty times it is used in the phrase “flowing with milk and honey,” describing the land of Israel. In those days, honey or anything sweet would be a very rare treat, so a land flowing with it would be a desirable place to live indeed, in great contrast to arid Egypt.
It has one non-obvious property that makes it even more valuable not just as a delicious food, but as a useful remedy for wounds: it is antibacterial. It is the only food that can be left unrefrigerated and even unsealed, and it will not grow moldy or decay in any way. Ancient honey from Egyptian tombs thousands of years old has been recovered and found to still be edible. It is therefore useful as a sterilization agent in wound dressings, as well as an ingredient in preserved foods for travel.
Scripture is directly compared with honey in several places and found to be even better. From Psalm 19, “…sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” are the judgments of the Lord and by extension the whole law.* Psalm 119:103 is even more direct: “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! [Yea, sweeter] than honey to my mouth!” We can “taste and see that the LORD [is] good” (Psa 34:8) by meditating on the truth of His Word. And not only is scripture sweet, but like honey, it is preserving to the heart, preventing the bacteria of spiritual rot from corrupting our lives.
Another comparison is with manna, a physical symbol of God’s bread of life for the ancient Israelites. It was described as “like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it [was] like wafers [made] with honey” (Ex 16:31). The taste must have been nice and sweet, but unfortunately, the Israelites grew tired of it and failed to appreciate the miracle of its presence each day, craving the foods they had in Egypt instead.
Proverbs speaks of honey also and gives a three-fold instruction and warning about its use. The first instruction is positive: “My son, eat thou honey, because [it is] good; and the honeycomb, [which is] sweet to thy taste.” (Pro 24:13). The second is balanced: “Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.” (Pro 25:16). And the third is negative: “[It is] not good to eat much honey: so [for men] to search their own glory [is not] glory.” (Pro 25:27).
At first glance, this would seem to be contradictory, but it is really a lesson in moderation. Honey is a good thing to eat, but not too much at once. And there is a curious comparison to seeking one’s own glory. An alternate translation of this phrase says, “be sparing of complimentary words” (RSV). In other words, speaking too many honeyed words is not good for the receiver. Receiving too much praise or glory will cause one to seek more of it instead of humbly receiving what is given.
So honey has a dual nature when used as a comparison in scripture. It is a sweet and fluid illustration of the nature of God’s Word, like pure water, flowing across a land, sustaining and preserving its people. And it is a symbol of the sweet temptation of pride that puffs one up like leaven. In fact, both leaven and honey are explicitly forbidden to be included in burnt offerings (Lev 2:11). There are many lessons to be learned from honey.
Challenge: Read a chapter more slowly and deeply than usual. Read it one verse at a time, pausing to absorb the meaning, and then one word at a time, tasting each one like a drop of honey on the tongue.
*Psalm 19:7 is another verse that gives this blog its name: “The law of the LORD [is] perfect, converting the soul…”