Weeds, chaff, briar, thorn

  • Weeds are unwanted often fast-growing plants which supplant superior or cultivated plants
  • Chaff is the collective term for the empty husks which remain after the grain (the useful part) has been threshed from a cereal crop
  • A briar is a prickly bush or shrub
  • Thorns are sharp-pointed protrusions that grow on briars and other plants.
All these are used in the Bible as images of what is undesirable. 

Judgement on failure

Thorns and weeds are established early on in the Bible as emblematic of imperfection and hardship. They featured among the consequences of the Fall in Genesis:
And to Adam [God] said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree
 of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’,
cursed is the ground because of you; 
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; 
and you shall eat the plants of the field.’           Genesis 3:17-18 ESVUK     
Thorns and weeds were used as an image of fruitlessness and abandonment throughout the Old Testament:
In the New Testament, John the Baptist, preparing the way for the coming Messiah, had some harsh words of warning about the judgement the Messiah would bring:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.                   Matthew 3:12 ESVUK     
This relates to the idiom ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’, which implies recognising and selecting that which has value and discarding the rest.

An image of pain and punishment

When the Israelites began to conquer and inhabit the Promised Land they were warned to be faithful to God and cautious in their dealings with the current inhabitants. Otherwise, said Joshua 23:12-13, the Canaanites would become a snare to them, and ‘thorns in their eyes’. When the men of Succoth refused to provide food for Gideon’s army, he angrily promised to return and to ‘flail [their] flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briars’ Judges 8:7
More dramatically, in the New Testament, prior to being crucified, Jesus had a crown of thorns rammed on his head, the Roman soldiers’ mockery of his claim to be the King of the Jews (John 19:1-3).


Parable of the SowerJesus uses images of thorns and weeds (versus desirable crops) in his teaching stories. In the Parable of the Sower, told in Matthew 13:1-9 and explained in Matthew 13:18-23, thorns are analogous to ‘the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches’ which ‘choke’ the word of God so that it does not bear fruit in a person’s life. 
In another parable, Jesus describes God’s kingdom in the following way:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.                                        Matthew 13:24-6 ESVUK     
He develops the image to explain God’s patience in bringing about final judgement, allowing both good and bad to grow together until the ‘harvest’, so as not to destroy the wheat along with the weeds Matthew 13:27-30.
Paul writes of a thorn in the flesh, which he has been given to help him stay humble 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. There has been much speculation about what form this thorn took (a person he didn’t get on with? a chronic illness?) but he doesn’t say. We only know that he asked God to remove it …
But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 
                    2 Corinthians 9:12 ESVUK     
The phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ has become a colloquialism for any ongoing frustration, sickness, or challenge.

Weeds, chaff, briar, thorn in literature

  • In John Wyndham’s 1951 dystopian science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, the titular creatures are mobile, carnivorous plants bio-engineered for their oil extracts. After most humans are blinded by a mysterious meteor shower, the plants break loose from their cultivated captivity and terrorise the survivors
  • In the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, the castle where the stricken princess lies is surrounded by a forest of thorns and brambles. When the prince arrives to rescue her one hundred years later, a pathway through magically opens at his approach
  • The Pevensie siblings return (after many Narnian years) to the castle of Cair Paravel in [3C.S. Lewis3]’ Prince Caspian (1951). Their old home is deserted, and so overgrown with weeds, brambles and ivy that it takes them some time to recognise it.

Other cultural references

  • The image of tumbleweed in Western movies (for example, blowing through the streets of a remote, low-populated settlement) is a classic cinema trope instantly evoking desolation
  • The ‘Burryman’s Parade’ in South Queensferry, Scotland, is a bizarre annual ritual: a local man travels the town covered in the sticky seed heads of the burdock plant. The meaning has been long since forgotten; one suggestion is that he originally represented a type of scapegoat.

Related topics

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.