The Four Soils Explained


When He was alone, the Twelve and the others around Him asked Him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

‘They may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.’ (Mark 4: 10-12)

But this seems so contrary to what God really wants. Doesn’t He want everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? Jesus’s response was both astonishing and puzzling.

Firstly, He explained that His stories had two different purposes for two different groups of people. The disciples were chosen for their potential to become authentic disciples and their willingness to embrace Jesus’s teaching and believe in Him. The other group – which Jesus called “those on the outside” – had shown by their response to the Word that they either refused to receive His Word or their faith was temporary and conditioned by their circumstances.

He was actually teaching by parables to harden people in their unbelief! Why would He do that? These people had a choice. Every time someone heard the Word of God and failed to believe and live by it, his heart became a little harder and he was less able to hear and receive the Word. Jesus knew as He taught the people, how this worked in practice.

His people had responded like this to the covenant at Mount Sinai. In spite of all the evidence of His love and care for them during their journey through the wilderness, they murmured and complained every time they were put to the test. Their rebellion was proof of their unbelief. His provision of manna and water, His protection against the dangers of the journey and the enemies that came against them, instead of growing their trust, only hardened their hearts against Him.

Secondly, Jesus explained the meaning of the parable. One kind of seed, four kinds of soil, four different responses to the seed.

  1. Footpath ground

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Mark. 4: 15)

The footpath resembles the hearts of people who fail to believe anything they hear from the Word of God. They are so hardened in their unbelief that nothing penetrates. The Word simply lies on the surface until Satan snatches it away. It’s as though they had never heard it at all.

What makes people’s hearts so hard that they reject God’s word?

  • Some have chosen to follow false religions. They resolutely believe lies and refuse to acknowledge or believe the truth when it is presented to them.


  • Some people’s hearts become hardened through persistent disobedience. Every time they hear the Word and choose to disobey, they become less sensitive to God’s directions. They resist the Holy Spirit so often that they can no longer hear His voice.


  • Some people become insensitive to the Word because they feed on worldly “junk food”; movies, TV programmes, magazines, and books which present the ungodly ways of the world and feed the flesh. They have no appetite for the Word of God because they have fed so long on “junk food”.

Although these responses might apply to people as a whole, there is a sense in which this story illustrates the way everyone responds to different facets of God’s Word. Some parts of the Bible are palatable and we receive them gladly while other parts are rejected because they demand something of us which we don’t like. Wherever a part of our hearts become hardened, the Word is snatched away and we lose our capacity to respond to it in that area.

We may, for example, classify ourselves as believers but if, for one reason or another, we are practising sin, say, having sexual relations with a boyfriend or fiancée with the excuse that “we will get married one day”, and we refuse to obey God’s instruction, we will not respond to His rebuke. We will have lost our ability to hear that word because we have chosen our will above His will.

  1. Shallow topsoil

Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Mark 4: 16-17)

Have you ever tried to grow plants in shallow topsoil? The seeds germinate readily enough but the hot sun soon withers them because the roots are too shallow to anchor the plants or to reach water to sustain them.

What constitutes “rocky soil” in people’s hearts? Unlike the footpath, they do have some topsoil, but it does not have enough depth for roots to establish themselves and anchor the plant.

”Shallow” people usually don’t take anything seriously. They are not interested in the real issues of life. As long as they can get along without too much inconvenience, they are satisfied. Their relationships are superficial, their values opportunistic, their behaviour selfish and their motives self-seeking. They are not prepared to work at creating harmony in their relationships. Any clashes, any misunderstandings and they cut the other person out of their lives. Everything must work for their benefit or they are not interested. They crack under pressure. They cannot take adversity.

They are always on the defensive, never willing to ask for or take advice or change the way they think. They take everything personally, are easily offended, speaking and acting defensively instead of learning something from the situation that will be of benefit to their character.

They embrace the message of Jesus readily enough as long as it is to their benefit but, when He begins to apply a little pressure to grow their faith and mature them in their relationship with Him, either through people or circumstances, they take offence and walk away. Unless the gospel works for them the way they expect it to, they do not want it.


  1. Thorny ground

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4: 18-19)

This condition describes what the Bible calls a “divided heart”. With penetrating insight, Jesus diagnosed the three symptoms of a divided heart.

  • The worries of this life.

Worry causes people’s hearts to split into two – either “what if” or “if only”. “What if” concerns itself with the future and “if only” with the past. Instead of living life now, they are held captive to the past by regret or the future by fear. This kind of enslavement is tenacious. Regret or fear takes hold of the mind and cannot easily be shaken off. Their minds are “split” by being “here” but also “there” – in the past or in the future but not in the “now”.

  • The deceitfulness of riches

Greed also causes people’s hearts to be split. Since what they have is not enough, they live in the future, always scheming to make more so that they will have “enough” – however much that might be. They are deceived by the devil into believing that they would be contented if they only had enough. They are here “now” in body but they live in the future in anticipation of enjoying life “then” while life passes them by now because they have pinned their contentment on a mirage in the unknown future. They are split by trying to live “then” as well as “now”.

  • The desire for other things

This hits at the very heart of their relationship with God. This is what the Bible calls “covetousness”. When they are dissatisfied with what they have and constantly hanker for “other things”, they are in effect accusing God of short-changing them. God has been unfair. He has given this “thing” to this person, that “gift” to that one that they would like. Therefore, they covet what they do not have instead of being grateful and content with what they do have.

Instead of their hearts being satisfied with “this” so that they appreciate what they have and be contented with their gifts, and can develop their potential, they want “that”. Split again! They try to live another person’s life, coveting their possessions or their gifts and wasting what God has given them on useless desires that will never be fulfilled.

How can the seed of the Word of God grow and be productive in soil that is cluttered with beliefs and desires that are contrary to everything that God is? The seed has no hope of ever taking root and producing a crop in soil fouled with pernicious anti-God attitudes.

  1. Good ground

Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it and produce a crop – thirty, sixty and even a hundred times what was sown. (Mark 4: 20)

Hearts that are not cluttered with pre-conceived ideas and beliefs, or that are willing to relinquish what reduces their ability to reproduce, will receive the Word, put down deep roots, endure all kinds of conditions and produce a harvest of spiritual fruit according to the seed sown. Like the good soil into which some of the seed falls, the volume of the harvest will depend on the preparedness of the soil to receive the seed.

The harvest from the good soil does not merely reproduce the same number of seeds as were sown. This is how God’s harvest works; He multiplies what is sown by huge margins because He is superabundantly generous!

What is the point of this story, then? There is nothing wrong with the seed. The potential to germinate, grow and produce a harvest is locked up in itself. Whether it grows and produces a harvest depends on the environment into which it is sown. God has given each person the power to choose. The productiveness of His Word in their lives depends on what they choose to do with it.

There are factors which influence their choices – the character of the person and the thought patterns and beliefs that have been laid down in their hearts. The final outcome, harvest or no harvest, will depend on their response or lack of response to the Word of God.

Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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