While reading Psalm 139, I paused to reflect on the word scrutinize:
“You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.” –Psalm 139:3
I marveled at how the L-rd has numbered every hair on our heads, at how He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and how He ordained all our days before they even began! Surely this word in Hebrew must have meant to pay such close attention to every detail of our creation that our loving Creator would bless us with all that He ordained for us, right?
But as I began to investigate the Hebrew word used in this verse, I was surprised to find that זָרָה (zârâh) actually means to winnow, fan or scatter away, to diffuse or toss about. In Ruth 3:2 it’s written that Boaz winnowed זָרָה (zarah) barley at the threshing floor.
That doesn’t sound very loving or comforting as I’d assumed! But in reality by scrutinizing us, the L-rd is showing His great love for us by refining and purifying us so we will be useful vessels for His Kingdom purposes. He also shows His love for us by pruning our branches – John 15:2. But there is a difference between winnowing and pruning.
When we are pruned (καθαίρω), our useless shoots are trimmed and then thrown into a fire. It’s well-known that branches that are pruned tend to bear more fruit. So while pruning may seem radical, the end result is increased foliage, blossoms and fruitfulness. Metaphorically this word also means to be expiated from guilt.
When we are winnowed, we must first be harvested and afterward brought to the threshing floor. There our useless chaff which is lighter than our grain is blown away by the Ruach, the wind, while our grain falls to the ground to be gathered up for good use as food. While both methods involve casting off burdens, pruning is dealt with by fire and winnowing by wind.
Throughout the Word there are many Scriptures that refer to winnowing that are not so pleasant to read, such as when the L-rd promised to scatter us, the Jewish people, if we disobeyed Him and entered into idolatry without repentance:
“I will winnow them with a winnowing fork at the gates of the land; I will bereave them of children, I will destroy My people for they did not repent of their ways.” – Jeremiah 15:7. See also Leviticus 26:33, 1Kings 14:15, Psalm 44:11, Ezekiel 5:10.
Yet even though we continue to be winnowed and scattered to the wind when we disobey and engage in idolatry, G-d will use this so that we will know Him as seen in Ezekiel 12:15 and Isaiah 41:16 – “You will winnow them, and the wind will carry them away, and the storm will scatter them; but you will rejoice in the L-rd, you will glory in the Holy One of Israel.” In light of His promise to make Egypt His people, Assyria His handiwork and Israel His inheritance (Isaiah 19:25) the L-rd vows to winnow Egypt (Ezekiel 29:12) and Assyria (Jeremiah 49:36) too!
So ultimately, the L-rd uses winnowing for our benefit as He promises that after He scatters us, He will faithfully gather us and keep us as a shepherd watches over his flock.