If you have seen a movie western, you have probably seen him on the screen. He is probably the most consistent uncredited actor in the movies. And yet he is instantly recognizable. He is one of those actors that you say, “I don’t know his name, but I have seen him before.” He has been around (and around and around) for probably a hundred years, and is still rolling along. Usually he is on the screen alone, but sometimes with other actors that look like him. He is the epitome of actors making a scene look lonesome and forlorn. You may not know his name, but you know his role. The Sons of the Pioneers even sang about him. He is the tumbling tumbleweed.
Here in the American Southwest we are quite familiar with tumbleweeds. During the late summer they are green and growing, and block our walking or biking paths. Come fall and winter they dry up and become uprooted. That is when they start blowing around. In some parts of the country they have snow drifts up to the eaves of the houses; here we have piles of tumbleweeds keeping us inside. The difference is that a spark of fire means nothing to a snowdrift, but will cause a tumbleweed drift to flare up in seconds.
There is a Hebrew word, galgal, that is often translated wheel or rolling thing. Some translations, in some passages, translate it tumbleweed.
Make them like tumbleweed, my God, like chaff before the wind. (Ps 83:13, NLT, NIV, CSB)
The nations rage like the rumble of a huge torrent. He rebukes them, and they flee far away, driven before the wind like chaff on the hills and like tumbleweeds before a gale. (Isa 17:13, same translations)
Other translations use phrases like “a rolling thing” (the literal translation) or “whirling dust.” Those may be valid translations. After all, the same word is one of two translated wheel when Ezekiel saw the vision of the cherubim. (Ezek 10:2, 6, 13) To some of us, though, it presents a very clear picture of what God was saying.
In both of these passages, the author is talking about what God will do to those who oppose him. Many a person thinks that God does not exist, or if he exists he will not punish those who reject him. A psalmist put it this way: “They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.” (Ps 94:6-7)
The truth is that God does see. He may act immediately, or he may take his time. He will punish the evil-doers. And that is where the tumbleweeds come in.
Once they are dry, it doesn’t take much to get a tumbleweed moving. When the wind catches them, they go wherever the wind moves them. It may be unpredictable; ask anyone who has ended up hitting a tumbleweed with a car. They can travel for miles or come up short against a wall. Often, in this latter case, the wind batters them until they no longer exist. That is what God does to the wicked. They are uprooted from their secure place and blown about. They have no security.
Which would you rather be? A tree planted by the water, or the lonely star of countless movies?