3.3.10 Fig Tree: Israel
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.10
Fig Tree: Israel
We concluded our last section with a passage (Micah 4:4) comparing the “vine” with the “fig tree,” and I noted that this taught us something about parallel relationships (peace, in this case) with all mankind (the vine) and Israel (the fig tree). Actually, this concept (“every man sitting under his vine and under his fig tree”) is a rather common Hebrew figure of speech. Yahweh often inspires His prophets to juxtapose the vine and the fig tree in their prophecies. It is our job to ferret out any underlying symbolic significance that might be latent in these passages, and apply them to our lives. At this point in our narrative, of course, I have yet to establish that “fig trees” signify Israel. I will do that presently (although I’ll admit right here at the beginning that this particular symbol is never overtly defined in scripture). But first, let us examine a few other scriptural instances in which the vine (representing mankind) is spoken of in parallel with the fig tree, with an eye toward determining if my initial conclusion (the comparison of Israel with the nations) will remain valid. Note that, as is often the case, the symbols are not only symbols, but also have a literal component: there were real fig trees and grapevines in Israel’s experience (which is what made the symbol comprehensible, of course).
The first time we see the phrase, the subject is the stability of Solomon’s reign—the result of his father David’s reverence for Yahweh. “And he [Solomon] had peace on all sides around him. And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.” (I Kings 4:24-25) The peace and security that characterized his reign were both internal and external. First, peace had been achieved among the nations bordering Israelite lands. They either counted themselves as willing allies in deference to the character of his father David, or they were under Israel’s suzerainty, paying tribute to Israel’s royal dynasty. And internally? Note that Judah and Israel were, even then, spoken of as two different, though allied, political entities—something God never intended. The southern and northern components had been united under David (as they will again be under Christ), and Solomon had enjoyed the fruit of that political inheritance. But upon Solomon’s death (as a result of the spiritual compromises of his old age), Israel split apart from Judah, and they began living separate—sometimes adversarial—lives.
So alas, most of scripture’s mentions of vines and fig trees together are negative in tone—the converse of the characterization of Solomon’s blessed reign. Instead of the gentile nations and Israel dwelling in peace and prosperity side by side, we far more often see God’s wrath being poured out—on both of them. But there are variations on the theme to consider, nuances that conspire to aid our understanding. For instance, the Psalmist recounts Yahweh’s dealings with Egypt at the time of the exodus. “He struck down their [Egypt’s] vines and fig trees, and shattered the trees of their country.” (Psalm 105:33) You may protest, “God didn’t dispense His wrath upon the Israelites, only the Egyptians.” True, but consider this: when Yahweh was through with Pharaoh, the Israelites’ Egyptian experience was a thing of the past. They couldn’t have gone back to their old life of benign bondage even if they had wanted to (as some actually did). Yahweh had burned that bridge behind them. “Striking down Egypt’s fig trees” is thus a euphemism for destroying the “life” that Israel had experienced in Egypt—a life of sustainable hopelessness, of cultural malaise, of miserable normalcy, and of familiar, comfortable slavery. Whatever they would experience in the wilderness and in the Promised Land, it wasn’t that.
But Israel’s apostasy and idolatry within the Land would eventually earn them Yahweh’s judgment as well. And this is where the vine and fig tree metaphor becomes all too commonplace. “When I would gather them [Judah], declares Yahweh, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree. Even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jeremiah 8:13) The problem, he says, is fruitlessness. Israel—the fig tree—was bearing no fruit. It was therefore inevitable that the vine of mankind would be found barren as well. It was common practice to plant fig trees within vineyards (see the Luke 13 passage below), presumably for shade and protection against wind. If the fig trees didn’t perform their function, the grapevines would suffer. The lesson: if Israel didn’t present Yahweh’s plan and promise to the world as He had instructed them to do, all of mankind would be diminished by their failure.
So Yahweh was “hard” on Israel, encouraging them (though not forcing them) to heed His word, using such tactics as this: “‘I struck you with blight and mildew. Your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured. Yet you did not return to Me,’ declares Yahweh.” (Amos 4:9) Even before they entered the Land, Moses had been careful to inform Israel—notably in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28—that if they suffered adversity, it was because they had failed to keep Yahweh’s commandments. There was a cause-and-effect relationship between disobedience and disaster. So when blight and mildew and locusts struck, the first place they should have looked for answers was into the mirror: their own refusal to heed God’s instructions had brought the nation its “natural” calamities—just as Yahweh had promised them. Prayer and repentance (see II Chronicles 7:14) were in order. But whether out of rebellion, ignorance, or denial, Israel refused to admit their guilt before God. Thus the symbolic aspects of the literal plagues came into play: Israel (the fig tree) was no longer able to bless the vineyards (mankind). And the fruit of their olive trees (the Spirit of Yahweh) had been made unavailable to them, as a direct result of their apostasy.
Israel eventually forgot that these good things had been a gift to them from Yahweh—something He had told them over and over again. In their delusion, they had gotten the notion that their false Babylonian-derived gods, like Ba’al, Molech, and Asherah, had supplied them and protected them. So Yahweh set the record straight: “And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, ‘These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.’ I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall devour them.” (Hosea 2:12) The principle holds true to this day: the gifts of God which we refuse to attribute to Him with thanksgiving can just as easily be taken away. Nor is the lesson germane to Israel alone. America (or any other nation) would do well to heed the same truth.
“Blight, mildew, and locusts” were early steps in Yahweh’s program to get Israel’s attention. Later, and more drastic, steps would involve foreign invaders—attack, followed by exile (see Deuteronomy 28:52, 64). God knew that Israel wasn’t stupid. And moreover, they had the Torah to guide them: they had no excuse for ignorance. So why were they so unresponsive to His more gentle reminders that they weren’t exactly in the center of His will anymore? Could it be that they were drunk? “Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth.” Both grapes and figs were used in the making of intoxicating beverages. “For a nation has come up against My land, powerful and beyond number. Its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste My vine and splintered My fig tree. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it down. Their branches are made white….” It matters not whether Joel (whose date is uncertain—probably eighth century B.C.) is referring to Assyria, Babylon, Rome, or even to the coming Antichrist. The lesson is the same: sober up, repent, and seek Yahweh’s truth. “The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man.” (Joel 1:5-7, 12) When the fig tree and the vine languish (that is, when Israel and the humanity that depends on her are suffering God’s wrath because of their rebellions), nothing is as it should be.
Jeremiah is a bit more specific as he warns Judah about the threat of Babylon—whom God Himself would raise up for the purpose of chastising Israel. “Behold, I am bringing against you a nation from afar, O house of Israel, declares Yahweh. It is an enduring nation. It is an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say.” According to Genesis 11, the divergence of human language began in Babylon (i.e., Babel) only a few generations after the flood. And it is not without irony that Babylon was subsequently recruited as a universal symbol for systematic false worship, manifesting itself in religious, commercial, and political permutations, all of which will fall before the great day of Yahweh. “Their quiver is like an open tomb. They are all mighty warriors. They shall eat up your harvest and your food. They shall eat up your sons and your daughters. They shall eat up your flocks and your herds.” All symbology aside, this is precisely what Moses had warned them about in Deuteronomy 28. “They shall eat up your vines and your fig trees. Your fortified cities in which you trust they shall beat down with the sword.” (Jeremiah 5:15-17) Babylon’s conquests encompassed much more than just Judah. Their military targets also included Assyria, Aram, Ammon, Moab, Tyre, Anatolia, Philistia, and Egypt—virtually everyone in Judah’s sphere of contact—the shoots of its vine, as it were. And Babylon most certainly “ate up” the fig tree of Judah, taking successively larger bites between 598 and 586 B.C., when they finally destroyed Jerusalem and its temple.
Almost a century and a half prior to this, the Assyrians had attempted to persuade King Hezekiah to surrender Jerusalem to them by promising—at least temporarily—the same sort of peace and prosperity that Israel had enjoyed in Solomon’s day. King Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh (i.e., his chief cupbearer, negotiator, and enforcer) told the Judeans, “Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land.’” (II Kings 18:31-32, cf. Isaiah 36:16) Judah had been far from guiltless during the preceding centuries, but under Hezekiah’s leadership, they had repented and restored the worship of Yahweh. One had to wonder, though: was this repentance too little, too late? Had Assyria been recruited by Yahweh to punish Judah for her past sins, as had already transpired with the Northern Kingdom? Hezekiah didn’t really know at this point, but he had cringed at the Assyrians’ blatant blasphemies as they declared that Yahweh had no power to save them. But the prophet Isaiah finally delivered a word from Yahweh: “Don’t fall for it—I will deliver you.” (See Isaiah 37:6-7.) We all know what happened: the angel of Yahweh came and slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian troops in one night as they besieged Jerusalem, prompting Sennacherib to pack up and go back home—where he was assassinated by his own sons.
There is a striking contrast between what happened to Jerusalem when the Assyrians threatened, and later, when the Babylonians did. In the first instance, the Israelites were told to trust in Yahweh and wait for His deliverance. But later, such prophets as Jeremiah actually urged Judah to submit to the chastisement of Yahweh by surrendering to the Babylonians. The lesson (one of them) is that Yahweh is patient, but He is also on a schedule: all of His plans must come to fruition, in His own time and in His own way. If we as a nation—any nation—have turned our back on His word, we will suffer the consequences, though not until He is good and ready. But as faithful individuals within those apostate nations, our trust in Yahweh is always efficacious—even in the midst of well-deserved national trial: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Yahweh. I will take joy in the God of my salvation. Yahweh, the Lord, is my strength. He makes my feet like the deer’s. He makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19) Even as we witness the ebb and flow of our national fortunes, we can always count on the salvation of Yahweh. As Yahweh encouraged the good king Jehoshaphat, “Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of Yahweh on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed.” (II Chronicles 20:17)
This “salvation of Yahweh” has a name; or should I say, is a name: Joshua, Jesus—the English transliteration of the Hebrew name alternately rendered Yahowsha’, Yahuwshuwa’, Yahushua, Yahshua,Yəhowsu‘a, Yâhowshuwa`, Yâhowshu`a, Yehowshu‘a, Yehoshua, Yĕhôšûă‘, Yeshua, Yahoshua, Yeshuwa’, or Y’shua in our standard lexicons—the name I’ve been rendering Yahshua. There are as many as ten individuals who bore this name in scripture, and several of them were pressed into service as “types” of the definitive man named “Yahweh is Salvation,” the one the world knows as Jesus of Nazareth. One example: “Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign….” Joshua was the High Priest who, with Zerubbabel (the civil governor), was charged with leading the Babylonian exiles returning to Jerusalem in rebuilding the city and the temple. As the High Priest (and one not so coincidentally named Joshua—the same name our Savior would bear), he is clearly meant to be seen as a type of Christ. The “friends who sit before you” are priests of lesser rank, who are in turn symbolic of us believers—people who follow Yahshua, our “High Priest,” we whose function it is to intercede between man and God. I find it fascinating that they are described not as Joshua’s staff, supporters, or underlings (which they were), but as rea’—friends, companions, fellows, intimate and affectionate associates.
The “sign” of which Zechariah speaks is explained next: “Behold, I will bring My servant the Branch.” The “Branch” is clearly a euphemism for Yahshua the Messiah—the very One who causes the priests sitting before Joshua to be “a sign.” Confirmation is plentiful: see for instance Jeremiah 33:15 (which identifies Him as King David’s descendant), Zechariah 6:12 (where “the Branch” is predicted to build the temple of Yahweh), and Isaiah 4:2 (a passage that defines the Branch as belonging to (or extending from) Yahweh, and then describes Him as “beautiful” and “glorious,” imagery uniquely descriptive of the Feast of Tabernacles, itself prophetic of the Millennial reign of Christ). “For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares Yahweh of hosts….” We are reminded that Yahshua is our rock, the stone that the builders rejected, the One who sees perfectly.
“And I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.” What day would that be? It can be none other than the definitive Day of Atonement, prophetic of the national awakening of Israel to the identity of their Messiah—accompanied with the “affliction of soul” and the appropriate response to their King (both of which concepts are included in the Torah’s requirement, expressed in the Hebrew verb anah.) This day will precede the commencement of Yahshua’s Kingdom by a mere five days (between Tishri 10 and Tishri 15), during which time the “Battle” of Armageddon will be waged, and Satan will be bound in chains and consigned to the lake of fire. “In that day, declares Yahweh of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.” (Zechariah 3:8-10) On the Day of Atonement, the state of blessing that had been enjoyed under the reign of Solomon will be reinstituted. Peace will prevail within Israel and throughout the world. It is a peace that will persist unabated throughout the next thousand years.
The image of the fig tree, then, is certainly compatible with Israel, although we haven’t yet established any direct scriptural association. The clearest link we have, in fact, was extremely hard to see before the middle of the twentieth century. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prophecies in the Bible suggesting, implying, or outright declaring that Israel will be restored to her own God-given land, and that she will be led by the Messiah. The temple will be rebuilt, peace will reign, and the nations will look to Zion for guidance—admittedly a far cry from what we experience today. Israel must be dwelling in the Land of Promise for all of this to take place. But Israel—the Jews—were driven to the brink of extinction, not once but many times during their long exile from Yahweh’s shelter. Hitler’s Europe was merely the most blatant example. Who would have dreamt that a mere three years after the Nazi Holocaust was brought to a merciful though belated end, Israel would be back in the Land as a sovereign political entity for the first time in thousands of years, independent if not quite secure within her borders?
It was only on May 14, 1948 that this parable from Yahshua’s Olivet Discourse came into focus: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Israel was as “dead” as a fig tree in winter. As Ezekiel put it in chapter 37, it was a “valley of dry bones.” But in 1948, it put forth its first tentative foliage, bright and hopeful, though surrounded by mortal enemies. The “summer” is the season of growth, of bearing fruit, a time concluded by the harvest. So notice how Yahshua ties the sign of the fig tree (Israel) to His own impending return: “So also, when you see all these things [not just the fig tree, but a whole range of signs heralding the last days, most of which are recurring realities today], you know that He is near, at the very gates….” Yahshua had (in Matthew 24:30) defined “He” as Himself—the “Son of Man” who “will appear in heaven,” that is, “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” a phrase I’d take to indicate the rapture of the Church (because He will appear at the end of the Tribulation not “in the air” but rather on the ground—on the Mount of Olives, as indicated in Zechariah 14:4).
Summer doesn’t last forever. Yahshua tied the budding of the fig tree to a time frame: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:32-35, cf. Mark 13:28-31, Luke 21:29-33) People have tried for centuries to pin down the length of a generation to some specific duration of time, though it’s never defined in scripture. I’ll settle for this: a generation is, at the outside, the length of time encompassed by the life of its oldest member. In personal terms, let me put it this way: I was a toddler when the fig tree budded—I was two years old when Israel was reborn as a nation. I therefore expect to still be around (barring any unforeseen inconveniences, like premature death) when the rapture takes place, waiting and watching like an alert and faithful steward of Yahweh’s household. Not that the timing really matters to me, since “the dead in Christ will rise first.” But it would—you’ll have to admit—be extremely cool to be a living participant.
We saw with the grapevine (mankind) that the issue with God is whether or not any fruit is forthcoming. This is true of the fig tree—Israel—as well, as was demonstrated by Yahshua on Tuesday of passion week. “In the morning, as He was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once.” Mark explains that “at once” meant the very next day, Wednesday morning. (The verb here is in the aorist tense, meaning that no statement is being made as to the completeness of the action, only that it has actually occurred.) “When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.’” (Matthew 21:18-22; cf. Mark 11:20-24)
Now that we have been introduced to the concept that the fig tree is a symbol representing Israel, we can see why Yahshua was so harsh with this fig tree—even though, as was noted in Mark 11:13, it couldn’t really have been expected to have any fruit on it this early in the season. He knew, even if His disciples didn’t yet comprehend it, that Israel as a nation would reject His offer of salvation and His claims of God’s Anointing (that is, that He was the promised Messiah, Yahweh in flesh). There’s wisdom in Paul’s admonition to Timothy to be ready in season and out of season. Before the week was out, Israel would crucify Him, place His body in a borrowed tomb, and watch incredulously as He rose under His own power from the dead. None of this took God by surprise, of course. He knew that Israel wasn’t ready for their Messiah. That’s why He placed the Day of Atonement sixth in order of the Levitical convocations, not fourth. (The fourth and fifth of these seven appointments with God—the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Trumpets—are the bookends of the church age, that “great parenthesis” in the plan of God, the hiatus separating the 69th from the 70th week of the sweeping Daniel 9:24-27 prophecy defining Israel’s destiny.)
So Israel—the fig tree—would remain withered and fruitless during the entire age of the ekklesia. Yahshua’s other example of prayer is revealing as well: He speaks of a mountain (figuratively, a place of strength and security) being “taken up and thrown into the sea.” The “sea” is a common scriptural metaphor for the gentile nations (as the “land” indicates Israel). Without actually saying so, He has intimated that Israel (who could have been totally secure in Yahweh’s care) would be dispersed among the gentile nations. The “Diaspora” already existed in the first century, of course, the lingering legacy of the Babylonian conquest six hundred years previously. But under Titus (in 70 A.D.) and Hadrian (in 135), the expulsion of Israel from the Land was made total and complete. Their national identity wouldn’t reemerge until the mid-twentieth century.
Yahshua used the whole scenario to teach on the power of prayer—something He had just demonstrated concerning the fruitless fig tree with visibly shocking efficacy. But Mark adds this notice: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25) Besides the obvious admonition for us—to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God—this tells us something about Yahweh’s character and plan as well: He does not intend to hold His grudge against the nation Israel of Israel—well deserved though it may be—forever. When the church age is over, there will still be two holy convocations left to play out on His prophetic calendar. The Day of Atonement will mark Israel’s national repentance and restoration (after two thousand years of God’s “tearing and striking” them—see Hosea 6:1-2). And the Feast of Tabernacles—the last of the series—will celebrate Yahshua’s thousand-year kingdom, His reign over the entire earth from His “headquarters” in Jerusalem.
Let us then revisit a parable in which the fig tree plays a starring role: “And He told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9) The fig tree (Israel—specifically in its role as Yahweh’s chosen people) is planted in the midst of God’s vineyard (mankind). The Owner (Yahweh) expects to find fruit—but not the same kind—on both the vines and the fig tree. As He did several times during the Wilderness wanderings, God asks (rhetorically), “What’s the point of keeping this thing around if it doesn’t produce anything useful?” And just as Moses pleaded for mercy for His people, the parable’s “vinedresser” (who I’d see as Christ) continues to intercede for Israel: “Miracles of deliverance and provision have not turned their hearts to You yet, it’s true, but it’s a temporary situation. If we subject them to a little adversity—digging around their roots and covering them in manure—surely they will begin to produce fruit for Your pleasure. They just need to be reminded of what You’ve done for them.” Unlike a real vineyard owner and his vinedresser, of course, both Yahweh and His Messiah know that Israel will sprout not only leaves (see Matthew 24:32) but will also bear a bumper crop of figs. Their restored and fruitful future is prophesied hundreds of times in scripture.
Ask the average man on the street what “religion” is, and he’ll tell you that it’s a set of beliefs, rituals, and practices defining what one group or another thinks about their “god” (or gods), and how to reach out to him (or them, or her, or it)—or something like that. Since no god, real or imaginary, is in the habit of making his presence known in any tangible way these days, religion necessarily entails faith: we behave a certain way because we believe something to be right or wrong, true or false. The rub is that what we believe—what we have faith in—isn’t born in a vacuum. It either emanates from God Himself (if He’s real) or (if He’s not) from some other source, either derivative or imaginary. Religion, then, is the process and practice of mankind defining god (that is, the one to whom they feel allegiance is due, whether an external deity, an internal deity—oneself—or nothing at all). Religion seeks to determine who god is, and to codify what He wants from us.
But if there actually is a God—a supreme being responsible for our creation and destiny—this process is entirely backward. We shouldn’t be trying to define Him at all; our opinions have absolutely no bearing on what He might or might not want us to do. Our only criteria should be what He actually said and did in our world. In practical terms nowadays, that entails paying careful attention to our scriptures. If you’re a Jew, that means the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets. If you’re a Christian, you’d add the New Testament to the Hebrew canon. If you’re a Muslim, you’d have to follow the Qur’an (which is a bit of a problem, because it’s a contradictory and incomprehensible —not to mention bloodthirsty—political manifesto). But that’s about it for “scriptures” that claim to be the “word of god.” Other well-known examples of “scripture”—the Hindus’ Rig Veda and Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhists’ Sutras, Suttas, and Shastras, the Analects of Confucius, The Book of Mormon, Islam’s Hadith and the Sunnah, and even the Jewish Talmud don’t really purport to be God’s word at all, but are rather human wisdom offered up for human enlightenment: the very definition of religion.
The reason I bring all of this up here is that the very first recorded example of “religion” involved a fig tree. The scene: the Garden of Eden. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate….” They had received very little in the way of instruction from God at this point. Just “Be fruitful and multiply,” “Exercise dominion over God’s creation,” and “Don’t eat the fruit from that one tree in the middle of the garden.” So let’s see: they had not borne children yet, they’d let the serpent exercise dominion over them, and then they violated the one specific prohibition that God had given them. So with a record of zero wins and three losses, they found themselves estranged from the God they knew.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” The innocent animals they managed had no idea they were naked, and neither did Adam and Eve, until this moment. But now, guilt had precipitated shame, and shame cried out to be covered up. But how? Suddenly reticent to appear before God (who was, ironically, the only One who could actually help them with their new problem), they performed the world’s first recorded religious rite: they tried to cover their sin by means of their own invention: “And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths….” All they knew was that they were naked. From this bit of information, they extrapolated a whole series of questionable religious precepts: (1) Being naked (which was how God had made them, by the way) was “bad.” (2) They could repair the guilt they felt in their souls by covering their physical bodies. (3) They could make suitable clothing out of any material that was handy. (4) Their own labor was necessary: they did the sewing. (5) They presumed their shame had something to do with their sexual identities, so that’s the only thing they bothered covering up. (Seems to me, if they’d been thinking logically, they would have made bags to cover their heads, since their eyes, mouths, and brains had gotten into this mess. Mittens would have made more sense than loincloths.)
But Adam and Eve soon found out that covering their bodies did nothing to diminish their guilt. The minute God showed up, they knew they were still naked before Him. “And they heard the sound of Yahweh, God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh, God, among the trees of the garden.” Eve could have put on a full Muslim head-to-toe burqa and it wouldn’t have mattered: she would still have been exposed and shamed before Yahweh. There was no place to hide, and they finally realized it. “But Yahweh, God, called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’And he said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’” (Genesis 3:6-11) would reject His offer of salvation and His claims of God’s Anointing (that is, that He was the promised Messiah, Yahweh in flesh). There’s wisdom in Paul’s admonition to Timothy to be ready in season One wonders if Adam and Eve had even made the connection between eating the forbidden fruit and feeling naked and guilty at this point. If they hadn’t before this, they surely must have when Yahweh drew this picture for them. It wasn’t the fruit or the tree that changed things, of course. It was their disobedience to God’s clear command that had altered their perception of themselves, the world they lived in, and the God who had made it all.
God didn’t dispute the idea that their guilty bodies now needed covering, though I suspect that clothing was intended as much a symbol of how we appear before Him as anything else—something we’ll explore in detail in a future chapter. At this point, He merely wanted Adam and Eve to understand that fig leaves weren’t suitable as coverings for sin because they implied that man could work his way back to God—and he can’t. So Yahweh implemented a proper solution, one prophetic of His ultimate solution to man’s predicament: “And Yahweh, God, made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) The point, of course, is that innocent animals had to die in order to cover the shame of the guilty humans. It’s not fair; it may even seem cruel. But it’s reality: nothing short of a blood sacrifice is adequate for the task.
This is the Bible’s very first depiction of grace: the innocent being sacrificed to atone for the sins of the guilty. Our parents still had a choice to make, however: they could either accept the gift and put on the clothing Yahweh had made, or they could insist on continuing to do things their own way—practicing their religion, as it were. Note several distinct differences between Yahweh’s solution and theirs: (1) With God’s remedy for sin, innocent blood was shed: the animal who knew no sin gave his life so that our trespasses could be put out of sight of God. It may have seemed “too easy” for Adam and Eve, but I assure you, the animal found it to be nothing of the sort. (2) Our parents weren’t allowed to make their own clothing: God Himself did it. In the same way, we can to nothing to effect our own salvation beyond accepting the gift. (3) The clothing God made proved to be infinitely superior to the scratchy, shriveling fig leaves Adam and Eve first tried. Yahweh does all things well. (It puts a whole new spin on the phrase “Designer fashion.”) Fortunately, Adam and Eve chose wisely, opting to abandon their fig leaf skivvies in favor of God’s opulent substitute.
How does all of this mesh with our “working theory” that the fig tree symbolizes Israel? Obviously, Israel wasn’t around yet when all of this transpired. But the dichotomy we see here between a relationship with Yahweh and a religion designed to circumvent that relationship is clearly in evidence. If you think about it, that’s the same issue with which Israel—God’s chosen people—struggled from their earliest days forward. Even Abraham, the friend of God and progenitor of the Israelites, fell into the trap of “religion” now and then—most notably in the Hagar affair—following his own plan instead of the one God had revealed to him. In fact, Abraham was over a hundred years old when he finally came to the realization that he needed to trust Yahweh implicitly and without reservation. Blessed is the person who figures out the importance of reliance upon Yahweh at a young age.
There is a natural correlation between industriousness and prosperity, and Solomon paralleled that truth with an observation linking loyalty and honor: “Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who guards his master will be honored.” (Proverbs 27:18) In symbolic terms, we might paraphrase that, “Whoever supports Israel will benefit by virtue of Yahweh’s undying promises to her (e.g. Genesis 12:3), and whoever honors Israel’s God will be honored in return (see Matthew 10:32-33).
That being said, the Torah points out that before we may enjoy the fruits of our labors as we “tend” the fig tree, we must trust God. This isn’t an occasion for instant gratification, like a cash transaction at your local 7-Eleven. There has to be a hiatus between our obedience and the blessings that flow from it—a necessary corollary to the principle of free will. “When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten.” At first, we must simply trust God, relying on His promise that the good fruit from this tree will be forthcoming in His good time. Three is the number of accomplishment: we will see Yahweh’s will accomplished in our world—if we don’t get greedy or impatient. “And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to Yahweh.” An equally counterintuitive precept is that the entire fourth year’s fruit crop is to be set aside for Yahweh’s use. In theocratic Israel, this portion would have gone to the Levites and priests. But the principle is established for us as well—“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of life’s necessities will be provided to you” (see Matthew 6:33). The number four indicates God’s design for the earth: we are to honor Him before we honor ourselves. “But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am Yahweh your God.” (Leviticus 19:23-25) Five, as I noted previously, is the number of grace. Our “trees” will render their fruit if we will but accept it as a gift from God—in His time, and on His terms. And it may (or may not) be significant that the fifth millennium after Abraham’s faithful life will be defined by the thousand-year reign of His descendant, Yahshua the Messiah. The sweet fruit of God’s “fig tree” will at last be available to us.
The whole point of grace is that it’s something Yahweh provides for us, not something we can work to procure for ourselves (in short: religion). This idea shows up (in a way) in a parable we’ve visited before. “And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:11) The “trees” in the parable wanted to choose a king from among themselves—something Israel would eventually do in emulation of their pagan neighbors, instead of relying on Yahweh for their leadership. In the parable, you’ll recall, they ended up getting ruled by the worst possible “candidate” because he (the bramble, personified by Gideon’s ambitious son Abimelech) was the only one arrogant and ambitious enough to take the bait. The other candidates included the olive tree (perhaps symbolically indicating that the anointed priests could have ruled Israel—something Yahweh never authorized), and the vine (representing mankind—that is, setting up their government in emulation of the surrounding nations—something God had specifically warned them not to do). The fig tree “candidate,” representing Israel’s self interest, suggests a state of avaricious anarchy—being ruled by “sweetness”—whatever felt good (or, as it was phrased at the end of the Book of Judges, “doing what was right in their own eyes”). Though all of these “kings,” in turn, directed the children of Israel, they rarely followed the path that Yahweh had laid out before them—being led by Him alone.
Yahweh’s path, of course, led inexorably to His Messiah. A potentially revealing incident involving a fig tree occurred early in Christ’s ministry. Immediately after His baptism by John, Yahshua began attracting disciples—many of whom had already responded to John’s calls for repentance. The only thing that could have shifted their focus from John to someone else was that they became convinced that this “someone” was He whom John had come to announce: the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed of Yahweh. So Andrew called his brother Simon (whom Yahshua would dub “Peter”), and Philip brought Nathanael. “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (John 1:45-46) Nazareth, and indeed, the whole Galilean region, was considered by the “enlightened cognoscenti” of Israel to be a cultural backwater, the home of toothless country bumpkins, funny accents, and uncouth manners—sort of the way Manhattan elites today might view rural Appalachia—hardly the sort of place from which the Messiah would hail. In fact, the Pharisees were adamant: “No prophet would arise from Galilee” (See John 7:40, 52).
Of course, adamant isn’t the same thing as “correct.” Factor in Isaiah’s stunning prophecy: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles.” Oops. These were the very regions being denigrated by the Pharisees. So what was supposed to happen there in Galilee? A prophet—nay, the Messiah Himself—would arise. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined…. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of Yahweh of hosts will perform this.” (Isaiah 9:1-2, 6-7) Thus the cultural prejudice that Nathanael’s offhand remark had betrayed, was, shall we say, misplaced. The lesson is, don’t trust the scholars and experts (or even guys like me).
Look it up for yourself. But Philip was all excited about Yahshua, so Nate felt that the least could do was check Him out. “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’” Yahshua apparently liked the way Nathanael “called ’em as he saw ’em.” Blunt and unpolished honesty was, then as now, was a rare virtue. There was nothing politically correct about the man. “Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” Really? All Yahshua had done at this point was demonstrate that He had the gift of prophecy—something unusual but not unheard of among mortal men. “Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, “I saw you under the fig tree,” do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (John 1:47-51)
There seems to be a subtle symbolic correlation here between being “under the fig tree” and “being a real Israelite,” guileless and straightforward. The fig tree, as it symbolizes Israel, is indicative of that which Yahweh planted. (As it’s presented more than once in scripture, this fig tree is planted in the middle of a vineyard, symbolic of humanity in general.) As it applies to Nathanael, being “under the fig tree” is what gave him the freedom and confidence to speak his mind. It’s not that Jews are smarter or more insightful than anybody else. It’s not even that they’re right more often—after all, Nathanael’s observation, that it was unlikely for anything good to come out of Nazareth, was actually wrong. But Israelites, being the custodians of Yahweh’s scriptures, were in a position to see things more clearly than their gentile neighbors—if only they were willing to open their eyes.
The Torah, Psalms, and Prophets had taught them who God was, what He was like, and what He wanted mankind to do. Everybody else was just guessing—inventing “truth” as if it were a subject open to negotiation. That the Jews got things wrong more often than not does not negate the fact that they, of all nations on the earth, had a solid foundation upon which to stand. Yahshua would later acknowledge, “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matthew 13:52) The scribes, as a class, were the first to condemn Him, and yet He realized that the scriptures with which they were entrusted would—if one were properly instructed concerning their true meaning—yield a treasure of truth more valuable than fine gold: the key to eternal life.
The glorious truth is that now, we all have the opportunity to “sit under the fig tree”—that is, to partake of the scriptural wisdom that was initially entrusted to Israel alone. They had been assigned by God to bring a Light to the gentiles—in the person of Yahshua the Messiah (see Isaiah 49:6, etc.). As a nation, they failed in that task, though individual Jews picked up the torch and carried it forward into the darkness where we once dwelled. Now—at the conclusion of the church age—the only reason for not sitting in peace beneath the fig tree of Israel’s legacy is treachery. Either you have betrayed yourself into believing the lie (which is, sadly, the default position of most Jews today), or someone else has prevented you from seeing the light. I pray that the blindfold will be lifted before it’s too late.
There is one place in which Yahweh directly and unequivocally linked Israel to the symbol of figs. But it’s a good-news, bad-news story: the figs in question are of two contrasting conditions—fresh or rotten. “After Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the craftsmen, and the metal workers, and had brought them to Babylon, Yahweh showed me this vision.” The prophet Jeremiah is speaking. He was in a perfect position to comprehend the vision, for he had been warning Judah for decades to repent, and lived to see its fall to Babylon. “Behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of Yahweh.” The temple, you’ll recall, signifies the plan of Yahweh for our salvation. Israel was the medium through which Yahweh had chosen to implement that plan. But it doesn’t follow that they played their part flawlessly. As it turned out, there were two opposing responses within Israel to the impetus of God’s instructions. “One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. And Yahweh said to me, ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ I said, ‘Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten….’
It occurred to me that when fresh figs are picked from the tree, there are three (not two) different “destinies” possible for them. (1) They can be used fresh—eaten, cooked in recipes, made into jam or fig newtons—enjoyed for their juicy, sweet flavor right off the tree. (2) They can be dried—preserved by carefully removing the moisture from them like raisins, prunes, or dried apricots (or my personal favorite, Craisins—dried cranberries). This process doesn’t just happen, of course: you have to purposely process the fruit. The idea is to preserve it, give it a long shelf life, and make it useful for food long after the fresh fruit would have spoiled. (3) They can be left to rot—neither eaten nor preserved, just neglected and ignored until they are no good to anyone, disgusting and putrid.
Though He didn’t allude to it here, Yahweh did see an “option #2” in Israel’s future. In the end, He would make “dried figs” of them, carefully preserving them so they could be useful in the future, after they turned to Him in repentance. But for the moment, He saw them as either good or bad, and would treat them accordingly. “Then the word of Yahweh came to me: ‘Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am Yahweh, and they shall be My people and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart….” The “good” figs were those among Israel (like Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Mordecai) who received Yahweh’s rod of correction in Babylon in the spirit in which it was offered: as an opportunity for national repentance and reflection—a long overdue wake-up call.
And the bad figs? “But thus says Yahweh: ‘Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.’” (Jeremiah 24) Like Jeconiah, the puppet king Zedekiah would never again see Israel, never be restored to blessing, never again have a role to play in the unfolding history of his people. Why? Because he was rebellious and arrogant—against both Yahweh and Nebuchadnezzar—preferring desperate human solutions to the clearly delineated proclamations of Yahweh delivered by His prophets. Don’t look now, but the leaders of the world’s nations are—to a man—making the very same blunders today. Judgment is coming, but they are encouraging their nations, like Israel of old, to sit there in their fruit baskets until mold, decay, and putrefaction devour them from within. Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
A bit later, Jeremiah again referred to the “rotten figs” represented by the unrepentant exiles in Babylon. “Because you have said, ‘Yahweh has raised up prophets for us in Babylon…’” Let’s break this off in mid-sentence, and figure out who he was talking about—these “prophets in Babylon.” In the near term, he’s referring to those among the exiles who envisioned a quick return to the Land, a speedy restoration of Judah—although Yahweh had clearly indicated that the Land would be allowed to enjoy its Sabbaths. This was written before the final siege and total destruction of Jerusalem: there were still Jews living there, and a king (well, a puppet king) sitting on the throne. It is often said that Israel’s captivity was to last seventy years, but careful exegesis reveals that it was actually Babylon’s ascendancy that was to last only seventy years (though the two things are largely coterminous). The Israelites were allowed to return after a mere 67 years of captivity (as it was experienced by Daniel, one of the earliest exiles), soon after the Medo-Persians under Cyrus took Babylon down, in 539 B.C. So those who were saying, “Don’t bother unpacking your suitcases; we’re going to be out of here in a jiffy” were proven to be false prophets. Two of these people are mentioned by name in verse 21: Ahab, son of Kolaiah (not Omri) and Zedekiah, son of Maaseiah (not Jeconiah—in other words, not the kings of Israel and Judah bearing the same names, but exiles in Babylon who were calling Jeremiah’s “seventy-years” prophecy a lie).
But beyond that, let’s look at this phrase “prophets in Babylon” from a symbolic point of view. Babylon represents confusion resulting in systematic false worship in all its guises—religious, political, and commercial. It’s the seat of manmade religion, our “faith” in false gods, as opposed to relationship with Yahweh. So Jeremiah’s message is ultimately directed toward anyone who trusts in his own understanding and relies on his own labors to save him.
And what is that message? Basically, that the “prophets of Babylon” are misguided fools for presuming that Zedekiah’s man-centric plots and intrigues wouldn’t lead to the destruction of Zion. “Thus says Yahweh concerning the king who sits on the throne of David [Zedekiah], and concerning all the people who dwell in this city [Jerusalem], your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: Thus says Yahweh of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, because they did not pay attention to My words, declares Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 29:15-19) This all came to pass in 586 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies came back and razed Jerusalem and its temple to the ground.
God’s point in having His prophet use the “rotten figs” metaphor is that if people (in this case, Israel, but the truth is universal) refuse to receive Yahweh’s rod of correction when it’s applied, and rather rebel and seek human solutions to their self-induced problems, they will become worthless. What could have been a sweet source of “nutrition” for the world (if allowed to ripen on God’s perfect schedule) would instead be good for nothing—actually worse: disgusting, worm infested, stinking, and putrid.
I’ll offer an example of how this works. On September 11, 2001, America was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists who targeted three symbols of our national strength and pride—our financial prowess, our military might, and our political infrastructure. Our response as a nation should have been to humble ourselves before Almighty God, admit that we had been “worshipping” false gods (though we may not have even realized it), and resolved to trust and rely upon Yahweh alone in the future. Granted, America’s churches experienced a slight “bump” in attendance for a few weeks. But our national response as a whole was to double down, to rely even more vehemently on our political wisdom (cough, choke), our presumed financial invulnerability, and our ostensibly invincible military might. In short, our “leaders” became the “prophets in Babylon.”
The result (as seen from my current perspective over a decade later) has been (1) the weakest, most ineffectual, most godless political leadership our nation has had since its founding; (2) the deepest, most recovery-resistant recession we’ve seen in over half a century, exacerbated by swelling welfare roles, unfathomable national debt, an apparent inability to manufacture anything of value, falling real estate values, rising taxes, and jobless figures in double digits; and (3) endless, horrendously expensive wars with no definable objective, no possibility of victory, and no honorable way out, despite the skill, heroism and sacrifice of our troops. We have become a picture of Israel of old—rotten to the core, good for nothing, and odious to our enemies and friends alike.
It would be tempting to blame Islam for our woes, for it is indeed a powerful influence for evil in today’s world. But although Islam is a problem, it’s not our problem, exactly. Our problem is our stubborn national refusal to honor Yahweh as God and Yahshua—Jesus—as His Messiah. Islam, in the meantime, is like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon: a tool in the hand of God designed to get the attention of His people. Yahweh will deal with Islam—as He did with Babylon—when the time is right.
Israel wasn’t the only nation God dealt with using the counterintuitive surrogate of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar gobbled up the surrounding nations like potato chips—or, using the example of the prophet Nahum, ripe figs: “All your [Nineveh’s] fortresses are like fig trees with first-ripe figs—if shaken they fall into the mouth of the eater." (Nahum 3:12) Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, had been the nation employed by God to scatter Israel’s ten northern tribes to the wind—the result of centuries of their apostasy and idolatry. But the brutality with which they carried out their task did not go unnoticed by God. Babylon’s rise was fueled by Assyria’s fall. The cycle was repeated with Persia, then with Greece, then with Rome. No nation that held the fate of Israel in their hands and failed to show them kindness survived to tell the tale. I realize that that statistic is hard to prove, though, because no nation has ever honored Israel and her God consistently—even (I’m ashamed to admit) the United States. What was true of Assyria back in the seventh century B.C. is still true of nations today: there is always a “Babylon” breathing down their necks, willing and able to shake the fig tree.
This truth will come into sharp focus, I’m afraid, during the Last Days—which I’m convinced are practically upon us. Even before Assyria met its demise, Isaiah saw what was on our horizon. “For Yahweh is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; He has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter.” We tend to see evil in one entity or another, but we need to realize that during the Tribulation, Yahweh intends to confront and destroy all evil in this world. Anyone who refuses to honor the true and living God—and show it by supporting His people Israel—will be “devoted to destruction.” That, alas, will include all nations, and the majority of their citizens. “Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise. The mountains shall flow with their blood...”
And in the end, even the stars of the heavens will echo the earth’s judgment: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.” (Isaiah 34:2-4) We are reminded of the fig tree alongside the road to Jerusalem, the one that Yahshua cursed to show what would happen to Israel if she didn’t recognize her Messiah, bearing fruit unto righteousness: it shriveled from the roots up, becoming unable to bear fruit or even leaves. There will come a time when the entire physical universe will suffer the same fate. After the Great White Throne judgment (see Revelation 20:11-15) all of us will have become what we will be throughout eternity—either alive, dead, or damned. Mortality will have been rendered obsolete; death itself will have been cast into the lake of fire. The material universe is, as Peter puts it, “stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly…. The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (II Peter 3:7, 10) Once Yahweh’s creation is no longer needed to provide the stuff from which our mortal bodies are made, He won’t be sentimental about keeping it around. I have a feeling He has something even more spectacular planned to take its place.