3.3.13 Oak or Terebinth: Death or Dormancy
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.13
Oak or Terebinth: Death or Dormancy
Well, this is depressing, I must say. I live in a neighborhood called “Seven Oaks,” in the middle of wooded area bristling with oaks, hickories, maples, and other deciduous trees. I love it here, but a survey of the scriptural mentions of “oak trees” reveals that they are invariably connected with death, something that leads to death, or the state of being dormant or inactive. Perhaps God chose this symbol because these trees lose their leaves every autumn, feigning death as they await the renewal of spring. And I don’t know how spiritually significant this might be, but oak trees sometimes endure the “death” of winter without actually dropping their dead leaves—a condition known as being “half-dressed.” These oaks don’t seem to want to accept their condition—that of being “dead” (okay, dormant) where they stand. They make a bold show of it in the face of winter’s chill, but their leaves are no longer green, no longer feeding the tree with the sun’s gift of life. These shriveled pale yellow holdouts, hanging on until the bitter end, are nothing but a sad reminder that real life is something that just can’t be faked.
The tone for the oak tree symbol was set way back in Genesis: “And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel [“God of the house of God”], because there God had revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother. And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak [allon] below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.” (Genesis 35:6-8) Allon-bacuth means “oak of weeping.” Like a gravestone, this oak was chosen to mark the resting place of the lifeless body of a beloved friend. As we shall soon see, this begins a pattern: whenever we encounter an oak in scripture, death is never far away. Alas, it is part of the human condition: these bodies in which we live were not built to last. They’re designed as the ideal vehicles in which to make our choices before God, but once our course is determined, they’re not really needed anymore: all we can do is plant them under an oak tree and await the resurrection. The oak’s own “rebirth” in the spring is but one of a score of hints Yahweh built into nature designed to remind us of our own coming renewal—if our roots are secure in Him.
There are actually two trees in scripture that share this symbolic profile, the oak (Hebrew: allon) and the terebinth (elah). The names are translated almost interchangeably, depending on what English version you’re consulting. The allon and elah are mentioned in parallel in this passage: “Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And He said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and Yahweh removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth [elah] or an oak [allon], whose stump remains when it is felled.’ The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:11-13) This is one of only two Hebrew passages in which the two trees are mentioned together, and they don’t appear in the New Testament at all.
This is in the chapter describing Isaiah’s prophetic commission. Yahweh has just called, and Isaiah has answered: “Here am I—send me.” But then God gives His young prophet the bad news: Practically nobody’s going to heed your warnings, Isaiah. They’ll hear but not listen, and see but not perceive, because of the hardness of their hearts. So Isaiah asks the salient question: How long will this condition persist? Yahweh’s answer is recorded above, peppered with ominous words like “waste,” “desolate,” “forsaken,” “burned,” and “felled.” In other words, Isaiah’s audience, Israel, is to be rendered dormant—to all appearances dead, like an oak or terebinth tree that has been cut down and burned—until its “holy seed,” an acorn as it were, rises from the ashes in miraculous, renewed life. Israel’s “cutting” happened at the hands of Assyria and Babylon; the “burning” took place on Rome’s watch. But now—after almost two millennia of waiting in dormant exile—the oak and terebinth have sprouted anew from the fallow ground, amid the ashes of their former identity. They’re not yet what you could call a “tree,” but they’re finally showing signs of life.
The body of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, wasn’t the only dead thing Jacob buried beneath a tree. The story begins in the verses just prior to the passage we reviewed above: “God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there.” He was in Shechem at the time, about twenty miles north of Bethel. “Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’” This is a reference to the “wrestling match” recorded in Genesis 32, the one in which Jacob refused to let the theophany go until He blessed him—and where his name got changed from Jacob (“supplanter”) to Israel (“strives with God”). Israel and his clan were being instructed to go back to holy ground. “So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone….’”
It is not necessary to postulate that Jacob’s family were still idolaters. By this time, Jacob had four wives, eleven mostly-grown sons (plus multiple daughters, though only one is mentioned by name) and considerable wealth in the form of flocks and herds. So it is axiomatic that there were quite a few hired hands and domestic servants—like Deborah, for example—in his employ: it is they who were still clinging to their local gods and traditions. At Jacob’s word (having seen what his God was all about) they all complied: “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth [elah] tree that was near Shechem.” (Genesis 35:1-4) The principle is thus beginning to emerge: dead things should be buried in the ground under the shade of a terebinth or oak tree. They are not to see the light of day.
Half a millennium later—with the Egyptian experience now in their rear-view mirror—Israel got a little déjà vu, with a twist. We pick up the story as Joshua—now the aging leader of Israel with many miles, and battles, under his belt—gives his “commencement speech” to the people. After recounting their many failures of faith in the wilderness, and after reiterating his own determination to follow Yahweh no matter what (Joshua 24:15), Joshua expressed his doubts about Israel’s commitment. “But Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve Yahweh, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake Yahweh and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good….’” That’s the “downside” (so to speak) to being Yahweh’s chosen people: He expects you to respond to His love and provision in kind, and He’s not shy about applying the rod of correction if He decides you’re worth saving from your own foolishness.
“And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, but we will serve Yahweh.’ Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen Yahweh, to serve Him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses.’ He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to Yahweh, the God of Israel….’” What? He had to tell them—at this late date—to put away their foreign gods? What’s going on here? Did they even know they still had “foreign gods” among them? We have to read between the lines, of course, but I surmise that the Israelites of Joshua’s day were doing roughly the same thing many Christians of my day are doing: adamantly proclaiming their willingness and determination to follow and revere the One True God, while at the same time holding on to “foreign gods”—things they don’t even recognize as such. These are not necessarily “bad” things; they’re merely things we find ourselves serving, defending, and supporting in place of Yahweh, with our time, money, and effort. We don’t (I would hope) maintain shrines to little stone idols, or offer incense to statues representing demons any more. But we all too often do confuse the good with the essential, or the created with the Creator. A few examples (tailored for my American friends): our comfortable lifestyles (and the careers that pay for them); our recreational passions (or, in some cases, obsessions); our religious traditions, holidays, and creeds; and our political points of view, our candidates, political parties—even our Constitution. See what I mean? It’s stealth idolatry. The things in our lives don’t have to be evil to distract us from what’s essential.
So, where does the oak or terebinth tree enter the picture this time? “And the people said to Joshua, “Yahweh our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.’ So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth [’alah, a variant of elah, used just this once] that was by the sanctuary of Yahweh.” At a terebinth tree near Shechem? Is it possible that this was the very same place where Jacob had buried the idols belonging to his household? We’re left to ponder it, of course (and remember, this was five hundred years later), but the irony is delicious indeed. “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of Yahweh that He spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.’” (Joshua 24:19-27) The stone Joshua set up was like a grave marker: “Here lies the idolatry of Israel.” It stood as a witness of the nation’s good intentions to honor Yahweh alone. And as far as we know, those who were there that day pretty much kept their word.
But here’s the thing about graves: you only bury one generation at a time. When my father died, we all stood around his grave celebrating his life, singing hymns from memory, and praising God for his testimony. But my brothers and I went on living; we continued making our own choices, for better or worse. And our children too make their own decisions, independent of our desires or counsel. We can influence them, perhaps, but we cannot determine their destinies for them. And so it was with Israel. Another couple of generations down the road, and Joshua’s “witness marker” stood mocking Israel’s “best laid plans” like a losing lotto ticket. They—many of them—had turned back to idolatry, and had suffered the consequences. But it had all happened so gradually, they apparently didn’t even realize what they’d done.
So we read, “Now the angel of Yahweh came and sat under the terebinth [elah] at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.” That’s the rough equivalent of concealing your lunch money in your shoe in hopes that the school bully won’t steal it from you. It was, to anyone familiar with the “cursings” of Deuteronomy 28, an undeniable indication that Israel had not “obeyed the voice of Yahweh their God, to observe carefully all His commandments.” But Gideon didn’t know that (as he should have). In fact, he seems genuinely puzzled at his nation’s predicament: “And the angel of Yahweh appeared to him and said to him, ‘Yahweh is with you, O mighty man of valor.’ And Gideon said to him, ‘Please, sir, if Yahweh is with us, why then has all this happened to us?’” (Judges 6:11-13) Had he forgotten about the wooden image of Ba’al that his own father maintained? If we’re attuned to the symbol of the terebinth tree, we can see that the theophany was—as gently as He could—pointing out that Gideon and his generation were as good as dead, or would be if they didn’t do something to reverse their fortunes.
Calling Gideon a “mighty man of valor” as he hid out from the Midianites in his daddy’s winepress sounds like sarcasm—like when somebody calls me “genius” when I’ve done something really stupid. But angels—or theophanies—aren’t really known for their cynicism or sense of humor. They invariably tell the straight, unadorned truth. And so it would seem here, if the subsequent story is factored in. It was actually a prophecy: Gideon would become “a might man of valor” once he learned to trust Yahweh unreservedly. The lesson of the terebinth tree was that Israel would remain dormant until they returned to Yahweh—something they would do (at least temporarily) under Gideon’s leadership.
Same song, second verse: the story of King Saul’s untimely death. The account is recorded in full in I Samuel 31, but the burial is described in I Chronicles: “But when all Jabesh-gilead heard all that the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and took away the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh. And they buried their bones under the oak [elah] in Jabesh and fasted seven days.” The tree is described in I Samuel as a tamarisk (Hebrew: eshel). But the tamarisk is an evergreen, thus probably not included in the symbolic profile. In any case, this passage ties the death of Saul to the oak tree, but more importantly, to the reason for his untimely demise: “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with Yahweh in that he did not keep the command of Yahweh, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from Yahweh. Therefore Yahweh put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.” (I Chronicles 10:11-14) In other words, the oak tree (death or dormancy) speaks of one’s mistrust for and disobedience of Yahweh.
Saul’s successor—and the one to whom God turned over the governance of Israel—was David. Saul had met David when he was just a teenager. Their first meeting (maybe—the record skips around a bit) apparently took place when David was sent by his father to bring provisions to his older brothers as they fought against the Philistines. Young David was surprised to find the armies of Israel stopped dead in their tracks because of the taunts of the Philistine champion, a giant named Goliath. Of course, any reasonable man operating in his own strength and skill would have been perfectly justified in cowering in his tent. But David was not yet a man, reasonable or otherwise. He was just a kid, a shepherd boy, one his oldest brother Eliab (knowing him all too well) accused of being insolent and overconfident (see I Samuel 17:28). Well, perhaps he was. After all, he had successfully defended his flock against lions and bears, no less fearsome (to him) than this oversized Philistine thug.
But David also had something that nobody else in the camp of Israel had that day: a wholehearted, unshakable trust in Yahweh. We all know the story: David met Goliath on the field of battle, beaned him with a well placed sling stone, and then cut off the giant’s head with his own sword—one the kid could barely lift. And then he did what any victorious testosterone-fueled adolescent might do: he carried Goliath’s head around with him for the rest of the day as Israel’s troops chased the Philistines through the countryside. We all tend to miss the point of the story, misapplying it by observing that the small and weak can overcome great odds and defeat the giants in life. But the real point is that David wasn’t fighting in his own strength at all, but in God’s. Against Yahweh, Goliath never had a chance. It mattered not that David was a scrawny little shepherd boy, unschooled in the ways of war. God could have brought Goliath down with a mosquito, had He chosen to. But His purpose was to be glorified through the faith of one insignificant lad—who himself subsequently gained immeasurable significance in Israel simply because He trusted Yahweh.
I’m sure you found all of that quite fascinating, but why am I bringing it up? It’s because of where the face-off took place. This happened at a place called the Valley of Elah—the valley of the oak tree. The symbolic significance of this (I’m thinking) lies not so much in Goliath’s death, but in the ineffectiveness—the dormancy—of Israel’s armies until they were reminded by a simple shepherd boy that human valor isn’t really worth much on the field of battle without trust in Yahweh. Men have gone to war since the dawn of time claiming that “God was on their side,” of course, though such “faith” is invariably nothing more than wishful thinking. The Philistines encamped in the Valley of Elah may have marched under the banner of their god Dagon, but it’s pretty clear that they trusted Goliath. The invocation of their god (or gods) was actually just “cheap insurance” to them, a hopeful, superstitious method for ensuring success in what they had already decided to do, independent of any direction the deity in question may have been said to provide. It should be obvious that it doesn’t help to pray to a god who isn’t present, isn’t real, and has no power. But it is just as useless to pray to the One True God—Yahweh—if you have no intention of doing what He instructs you to do. David did. Saul did not.
That’s not to say David was sinless. Although his heart was Yahweh’s throughout his life, his head (not to mention some other body parts) wandered off and got lost occasionally. And there were always consequences—setbacks that scripture links directly to these lapses in behavior. One such consequence was that his own son Absalom tried to seize the throne of Israel at one point, and he nearly succeeded. Civil war ensued, and David found himself fighting for his life against the forces of his own son. But Yahweh was on David’s side, and as the battle turned in the king’s favor, Absalom was forced to flee through the woods of Ephraim.
As a young man, David had refused to harm King Saul when he had the chance, even though the king was trying to kill him. His point was that, for all his faults, Saul was still Yahweh’s anointed; David knew it was not his prerogative to remove Saul from the throne of Israel, but God’s alone. Now, since Absalom had seized the throne, the repentant David couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Yahweh had removed him for his sins, just as He had Saul. So whether out of compassion or godly prudence, he issued instructions that Absalom, if found, was to be dealt with gently. But it was not to be: “And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great terebinth, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on….” Just to keep things interesting, the same word (elah) is translated as both “terebinth” and “oak” here. Whichever tree the word actually means, the symbolic indication is that Absalom’s coup was dead, even if he wasn’t—yet. In today’s vernacular, we might say that he had been “hung out to dry,” unable to run, hide, defend himself, or make amends for the disastrous choices he’d made.
Don’t look now, but we’ll all eventually find ourselves in that position—“hanging by our heads” (that is, by what we think, believe and decide) from the “oak tree” of our own fragile mortality, utterly vulnerable before a holy God. Will we be punished as rebels against Yahweh’s Anointed King, or will we be treated with mercy, as the King Himself desires? With Absalom (whose name, ’Abishalowm, means “my father is peace”) it depended upon who got to him first—the rescue squad or the firing squad. But unlike Absalom’s finite father David, our King is able to meet us on a moment’s notice, wherever we are, if we will but call out to Him.
Anyway, “A certain man saw it and told Joab [David’s top General], ‘Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak [elah].’ Joab said to the man who told him, ‘What, you saw him? Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt [that is, an armament upgrade]….’” Joab was ostensibly on David’s side, but what he said and did betrayed an utter lack of respect for the king’s wishes. We Christians would do well to examine our own lives to determine whether we are treating Christ as Joab did David. When we do things our own way, according to our own inclinations (instead of His specific instructions), we are demonstrating treasonous proclivities. We must never forget that although David didn’t deal with Joab’s treachery during his lifetime, he did instruct his son and heir Solomon to do so, which he did with lethal efficiency (see I Kings 2:28-35). What goes around comes around, as they say.
“But the man said to Joab, ‘Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, “For my sake protect the young man Absalom….”’” This unnamed soldier knew better than to obey Joab’s unlawful order. He had heard the directive from the very lips of the king: “Show mercy to my son, even though he has rebelled against me.” I can’t help but reflect that Joab’s reaction demonstrates the error of religion (as opposed to relationship with God). Yahweh desires that everyone should be given the chance to repent: His mercy is designed to encourage this very thing (see Romans 2:4, II Peter 3:9). But “religion” seeks to curtail free will, to force the issue, to punish nonconformity—and worse, to do it in “the interests of God,” as if God couldn’t take care of His own affairs.
The wise soldier knew that double crossing the king would be a losing proposition: Joab would surely have “thrown him under the bus” to save his own skin, if it came to that. For the general, loyalty ran a distant second to perceived expediency. So the soldier told his commander, “On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.’ Joab said, ‘I will not waste time like this with you.’ And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him.” (II Samuel 18:9-15) Having no good answer to give, Joab dismissively brushed off the soldier, along with his implied word of caution. Surrounded by sycophants, he proceeded to do what he deemed personally advantageous, despite the stated decree of King David. But the prudent soldier had told him something we must all take into consideration: nothing is hidden from the King.
The moral of the story is going to sound “unpatriotic” or “cowardly” to some. But I must call ’em like I see ’em. There are many wrongs in the world, things that war against the kingdom of God and against all that is decent and holy. A few isolated examples: Islam, Communism, atheistic secular humanism, abortion, illicit drugs, pornography, organized crime, shady lawyers, greed, and racism. As the end of the age approaches, we can perceive all of these things (and more) being “caught by their heads” like Absalom in the oak tree. That is, their own corrupt nature will ensure their eventual downfall. But human logic (the path of Joab) might say that we need to stamp these things out by attacking and killing those who promote them: Since God is on our side, we can and should appoint ourselves judge, jury, and executioner.
But God Himself said, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). And Christ clarified the principle: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22). He went on to say, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:39-42) Do not resist evil people? Yes. Whereas religious people may feel justified in bombing abortion clinics, shooting drug dealers (or their lawyers), or waging genocidal wars against Muslims, gays, or Communists, we followers of Yahweh are not authorized or instructed to do anything like this. On the contrary, God says, “Trust Me to take care of these things Myself, in My own good time.”
It isn’t “logical,” I know. First, we’re told to “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” Does not armament imply warfare? Does not warfare require aggression? Not really: look carefully at our arsenal: “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:13-17) All of the items on the list except one are purely for defense. And the single “offensive weapon”—the “sword of the Spirit, the Word of God”—comes with instructions: it is to be used in prayer. If I may use a crude analogy, this is like a soldier in the field, equipped only with a helmet, boots, body armor, and a radio. If there’s a target that needs “taking out,” he doesn’t throw his walkie-talkie at them: he uses his radio to call in an air strike. That’s our job as soldiers in God’s army: to communicate the situation on the battlefield to headquarters, so our Commander in Chief (the real One) can take care of things properly and decisively.
Remember, Absalom (i.e., anyone who is in rebellion against the King) is hanging there in the “oak tree” of his own mortality. In his own strength, he’s stuck: he’s either dead or dormant. He’s not going anywhere. So it is not our job to throw a javelin at him. It is, rather, our duty to report the situation to the King, Yahshua (through prayer, via the Holy Spirit, to Yahweh). The obedient unnamed soldier in the story only made one miscalculation. He didn’t go straight to David, but instead told General Joab what had happened to Absalom. We must not make the mistake of assuming religion can do Yahweh’s job.
Now that we’ve established the concept that whenever we see an oak or terebinth tree in scripture, death is invariably in the picture, we can use the symbol to reverse engineer (or at least verify the truth of) another ubiquitous Biblical premise: that idolatry leads to death. This may be a good place to start: “They [he’s speaking of Israel] sacrifice on the tops of the mountains and burn offerings on the hills, under oak [allon], poplar, and terebinth [elah], because their shade is good. Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery.” (Hosea 4:13) He’s not talking about Levitical sacrifices here. Those could only be made “in the place where Yahweh chooses to make His name abide,” that is, wherever the tabernacle or temple stood—in Hosea’s day, Jerusalem.
Offering sacrifices in groves of trees or on hilltops is a dead giveaway that we’re talking about Babylonian-style cultic observance: Ba’al worship using Asherah poles, the rites of which included religious prostitution, both literal and figurative. As intimated here, the idolaters loved their “shade,” for they didn’t really want their wicked practices exposed to the light of day: some things never change. The oak/terebinth symbol, then, reveals (actually, confirms) that such idolatrous practices are the pathway to death. It’s not as if the principle hadn’t been laid out in the Torah so many times you couldn’t miss it. A few examples will suffice: “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than Yahweh alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” (Exodus 22:20) This gives substance to the warning implied in the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
Later, Moses got even more specific: “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.” This wouldn’t be construed as murder (prohibited in the Sixth Commandment) because it’s a God-instituted punishment for a specific crime. “Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Stoning was the method of execution specified when the capital crime being addressed (in this case, enticement to idolatry) had been perpetrated against the whole congregation, not just one individual. Besides being just and fair (because idolatry in their midst put the entire nation at risk), there was a deterrent implied in the punishment: “And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11) One gets the feeling that if this severe and disquieting commandment had been observed a few times early in Israel’s history, they never would have gotten themselves into the sorry state Hosea described above.
In a perfect world, it would never be necessary to put someone to death for enticing others to abandon Yahweh and embrace false gods. But because of His gift of free will, it’s not a perfect world; far from it. In fact, after the rapture, the world will be defined by ubiquitous, universal “imperfection.” But while the church remains, we have Paul’s practical permutation of Moses’ precept to ponder: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” (Colossians 3:5-6) Now that idolatry is endemic in the world, now that Pandora’s box is open, it’s a little late to begin getting literal with Deuteronomy 13—physically killing everyone who suggests doing what God would call idolatry. (And to be perfectly clear about this, the precept was clearly only intended to be applied—literally, anyway—within theocratic Israel. Review the entire law, beginning in Deuteronomy 12:29.) But it is still entirely possible to “kill” the enticements to idolatry that confront us daily—not people, but the temptations on Paul’s list. I didn’t say it would be easy, but it is possible.
One might logically long for the “good old days,” when idolatry required overt stupidity, as Isaiah describes it: “He [the idolater] chooses a cypress tree or an oak [allon] and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar [the worship of power] and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’” (Isaiah 44:14-17) Nowadays, the enticements to idolatry that we face are a wee bit more subtle. The “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” about which Paul warned us are woven into the fabric of our daily lives—even (or should I say, especially) in an ostensibly “Judeo-Christian” environment like America. And the more educated, sophisticated, technologically advanced, and well informed we get, the more insidious the constant bombardment of idolatrous suggestion becomes. It’s no wonder Christ and the apostolic writers constantly encourage us to remain vigilant. It’s a jungle out there, inhabited by oak trees and roaring lions that seek to devour us.
The Bible makes no secret of the fact that there are consequences for idolatry—in reality, for any disobedience of Yahweh’s instructions. And the frequent, seemingly incidental, mention of oak trees in the context of such disobedience should remind us that those consequences include death. But bear in mind that the death of the body is, in the end, intended to serve as a symbol teaching us about a far more significant kind of death—the separation of our souls from Yahweh’s Spirit. We (our souls) are, like the oak trees of the forest, designed to reawaken from physical death—the dormancy of winter. In fact, as I looked for “oak tree” references, I was reminded of one of the strangest tales in the entire Bible, one that ended in the death of a faithful prophet of Yahweh—just to make a point. Worse, the guy died because he was tricked—deceived—by another prophet, lying to him (apparently) because God told him to. Weird. The whole thing is about as counterintuitive as any story you can find in scripture—especially if you’re laboring under the mindset that physical death is a problem. To Yahweh, death is just one of those things people do in life: if we deal with it well, it will (or can) honor Him. But it’s not remotely the end of existence for us who live by virtue of His Spirit, any more than winter is really fatal to an oak tree.
Anyway, the story begins, “And behold, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of Yahweh to Bethel. Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make offerings.” Jeroboam was the king who divided Israel after Solomon’s death, taking the ten northern tribes away from Judah’s petulant Rehoboam, and plunging them into an age of unprecedented apostasy. Bethel was his alternative to Jerusalem: the new center for Israel’s false worship. “And the man cried against the altar by the word of Yahweh and said, ‘O altar, altar, thus says Yahweh: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.”’” Josiah? We are all familiar with the name of the future reformer-king of Judah, of course, but Josiah came to the throne 291 years after Jeroboam did. This is roughly like Isaac Newton predicting that “a guy named Barack Obama will someday be president of the United States, whatever that is.” But forget the who. The what is the message here: burning human bodies and bones on an altar is the clearest possible way of saying, “This place is utterly defiled before God.” “And he gave a sign the same day, saying, ‘This is the sign that Yahweh has spoken: “Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out. ”’ (I Kings 13:1-3)
Needless to say, King Jerry, whose entire political existence depended on weaning Israel off of the worship of Yahweh and getting them to buy into his new counterfeit scam at Bethel, was not amused. So he screamed to his guards, “Get him!” But as he pointed at the object of his rage, his hand withered up, paralyzed in place. Oops. Then, just as the prophet had predicted, his bogus altar crumbled before his eyes, spilling its ashes on the ground. So Jeroboam, terrified by God’s power (though not exactly repentant) begged the prophet to reverse the curse. So he prayed to Yahweh, and the king’s withered hand was restored, whereupon Jerry did what any clueless, unrepentant, but nevertheless impressed fat cat might do: he offered the prophet his hospitality and a nice reward. This was hardly a “Zacchaeus” moment, in which the king had awakened to the error of his ways, vowing to return to Yahweh. It was merely good manners (punctuated by sheer terror). All it really meant was that he was relieved—even thankful—that his hand had been restored. But “The man of God said to the king, ‘If you give me half your house, I will not go in with you. And I will not eat bread or drink water in this place, for so was it commanded me by the word of Yahweh, saying, “You shall neither eat bread nor drink water nor return by the way that you came.”’” (I Kings 13:8-9) So the prophet headed for home in Judah via a different route. So far, so good. He had done precisely as God had instructed. But this is where things start getting weird.
“Now an old prophet lived in Bethel. And his sons came and told him all that the man of God had done that day in Bethel. They also told to their father the words that he had spoken to the king. And their father said to them, ‘Which way did he go?’ And his sons showed him the way that the man of God who came from Judah had gone. And he said to his sons, ‘Saddle the donkey for me.’ So they saddled the donkey for him and he mounted it. And he went after the man of God and found him sitting under an oak [elah]….” Uh-oh. The oak tree symbol has raised its ugly head. Cue the ominous music. Somebody’s about to die.
“And he said to him, ‘Are you the man of God who came from Judah?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ Then he said to him, ‘Come home with me and eat bread.’” That’s pretty much what the king had said, but the young prophet had remembered his instructions, and had refused. “And he said, ‘I may not return with you, or go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place, for it was said to me by the word of Yahweh, “You shall neither eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by the way that you came.”’” Nothing had changed. But he was about to get thrown a curve ball. “And he [the old guy] said to him, ‘I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of Yahweh, saying, “Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.”’ But he lied to him. So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water….”
This is where the wheels come off our typical, naïve, simplistic Christian beliefs. We’ve got two men, both of them bona fide prophets of Yahweh (as we shall soon see). Mr. Young had received his word from Yahweh Himself, whereas Mr. Old, bearing the opposite message, only claimed that his message was genuine, when in fact it was a lie. So here’s Salient Question No. 1: how was Mr. Young supposed to know what to do? Answer: consider the source. As a prophet, he had gotten his instructions directly from Yahweh. Mr. Old was telling him to ignore what he had heard from God, and listen to him instead. What Mr. Young should have done is to wait for Yahweh’s confirmation before he violated his original instructions.
Salient Question No. 2, then, is this: since nobody is seriously purporting to be a prophet of God these days (in the Old Testament sense), how are we supposed to know what to do in the face of plausible spiritual counsel? What are we to do when somebody tells us, “God says to do this…”? Answer: go back to the source, the Word of God. We have the scriptures to consult: the “God-breathed” Torah, Psalms, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, and Epistles. Yahweh has chosen to protect and defend the canon of scripture we now possess over the past two millennia, to the exclusion of scores of other books, some of them quite compelling. In recent decades, we have been blessed with a plethora of study tools to help us in better understanding the Hebrew and Greek texts, even if we’re not scholars. And of course, since Pentecost, we have had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide us in the way of truth. The Spirit will never give us counsel that’s contrary to the revealed Word of God.
But unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing about people—even well-meaning, knowledgeable people. The human heart is deceitful and wicked: it can’t be trusted. God’s word can be (when properly translated and considered in context, of course). The rub is that you have to be intimately familiar with Yahweh’s scripture if you hope to avoid being led astray by mere men. And that is a lifelong pursuit: you can learn everything you need to know about God’s love from a couple of paragraphs in the Gospel of John, but you can also spend an entire lifetime studying God’s word and not remotely get to the bottom of it. I’ve been a believer for sixty years, and I still learn new stuff all the time. But for all you know, I could be lying to you, like Mr. Old in our story. The only way to know for sure is to check my words against the truth of scripture.
We’re not nearly done with this strange tale. The “weird-o-meter” is about to redline. “And as they sat at the table, the word of Yahweh came to the prophet [“Mr. Old”] who had brought him back. And he cried to the man of God who came from Judah, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “Because you have disobeyed the word of Yahweh and have not kept the command that Yahweh your God commanded you, but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, ‘Eat no bread and drink no water,’ your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.”’” Okay, that is exceedingly strange: the same guy who led the young prophet astray is heard delivering God’s proclamation against him for having taken the bait. If I were Mr. Young, my retort would have angrily focused on Mr. Old’s plausible lie—the one that enticed me to disobey the word of Yahweh in the first place.
But pointing out the guilt of another does nothing to minimize my own, no matter how “good” it might make me feel in comparison. No one likes to be put to the test (if for no other reason than we usually fail). But if we’re honest, we’ll realize that it happens all the time. These tests are a component of our free will. Every opportunity we have to do the right thing comes with a choice: the temptation not to do it. The lie Mr. Old told to Mr. Young may have been more blatant than usual, but if you think about it, it presents pretty much the same sort of choice we all face twenty times a day: to do what God said to do, or do something else. It was relatively easy for Mr. Young to obey God when faced with Jeroboam’s offer: the king, after all, was understood to be the adversary. But when meeting someone presumed to be a prophet of God, he was caught totally off guard. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
We are not told what the young prophet did, or how he felt, when he was called on his lapse of judgment. (I probably would have thrown up all over the old man’s humus.) The Old prophet apparently went on with his meal as if nothing had happened. “And after he had eaten bread and drunk, he saddled the donkey for the prophet whom he had brought back. And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown in the road and the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived….” Don’t you wish you could read the lion’s mind? Gee, I don’t know what came over me. I just suddenly had this irresistible urge to kill the guy. I’m not even hungry! Sorry, mister.
The reaction of the old prophet is equally inexplicable (if you ignore Yahweh’s long-term strategy). “And when the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard of it, he said, ‘It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of Yahweh; therefore Yahweh has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word that Yahweh spoke to him.’ And he said to his sons, ‘Saddle the donkey for me.’ And they saddled it. And he went and found his body thrown in the road, and the donkey and the lion standing beside the body. The lion had not eaten the body or torn the donkey.” The lion, at least, knew how to follow instructions. But not being a man, he wasn’t burdened with moral choices. As for us, our greatest gift—free will—is also our heaviest responsibility. “And the prophet took up the body of the man of God and laid it on the donkey and brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him. And he laid the body in his own grave. And they mourned over him, saying, ‘Alas, my brother!...’” This demonstrates that the old prophet’s lie wasn’t told with malice or evil intent toward the victim. It was merely a test—one that the young prophet failed, with fatal consequences. And as such, it stands as a cautionary tale to us today: we are to heed Yahweh alone, and anything else we hear is to be strained through the filter of His Word. The counterintuitive truth is that we can’t even safely accept what we hear from godly or gifted men—not without comparing what they say against the solid truth of scripture. Blithely receiving “conventional wisdom” isn’t necessarily a wise thing to do.
There are still one or two loose ends to the story, but scripture wraps them up for us. “And after he had buried him, he said to his sons, ‘When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the saying that he called out by the word of Yahweh against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria shall surely come to pass.” (I Kings 13:11-32) The old prophet is thus heard doubling down on the young prophet’s imprecations against Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel. I am reminded of Yahshua’s observation that “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.” (Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:4) Mr. Old apparently lived within shouting distance of Jeroboam’s bogus altar at Bethel, but Yahweh didn’t send him to deal with it; instead He called for Mr. Young, from Judah, leaving Mr. Old (and his gravesite) to witness against the apostasy of Israel from that day forward.
Almost three hundred years later, Judah’s King Josiah, true to Mr. Young’s ridiculously specific prophecy, began to institute sweeping reforms in Israel: “Moreover, the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, that altar with the high place he [Josiah] pulled down and burned, reducing it to dust. He also burned the Asherah….” In case you’re wondering why a Judean king is seen here tearing down a pagan altar in Israel (i.e., the Northern Kingdom), remember when this happened. Josiah’s reign began in 640 B.C., but, because of Israel’s idolatry, they had been hauled off in chains by the Assyrians in 722—over eighty years earlier. But wouldn’t that place Jeroboam’s bogus altar in Assyrian-held territory? Yes, but Bethel is only about twelve miles north of Jerusalem, with the old border between Judah and Israel lying midway between the two cities. Although Bethel was technically an Assyrian possession, Assyria was itself, by this time, being wracked by internal dissention and crippled by corruption; they would fall to Babylon in 612. As far as Yahweh was concerned, it was all His land anyway: He would “loan it” to whomever He pleased, to hold it in escrow, as it were, until Israel was at last ready to receive it.
“And as Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount. And he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar and defiled it, according to the word of Yahweh that the man of God proclaimed, who had predicted these things.” This is confirmation that the young prophet from Judah had indeed spoken in the authority of Yahweh. (See Deuteronomy 18:22.) God had provided both immediate and long term fulfillments of the prophecy. We would thus be foolish not to look for further, more universal lessons bound up in the narrative. “Then he said, ‘What is that monument that I see?’ And the men of the city told him, ‘It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and predicted these things that you have done against the altar at Bethel.’ And he said, ‘Let him be; let no man move his bones.’ So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet who came out of Samaria.” (II Kings 23:15-18) Thus there is one final point: those who honor Yahweh—even those who have made fatal mistakes along the way—can rest in peace, secure in the knowledge of their coming bodily resurrection and reconciliation with their God. This incident was symbolic, of course: it really didn’t matter what happened to the bones of the two prophets, as far as Yahweh’s program is concerned: their souls were secure either way. But I believe God is telling us here that if our intentions are to honor Yahweh, even if we don’t succeed in perfect obedience (as was the case with both Mr. Young and Mr. Old—not to mention you and me), we will not, in the end, be counted as participants in the defilement of our fellow man. At least, I certainly hope that’s the case.
It’s disturbing, in a way, to see how often Yahweh links trees like the mighty oak to idolatry. Personally, I would have preferred to see idol worship associated with weakness, flimsiness, and vulnerability. But the oak tree grows large, lives for centuries, and yields a wood prized for its hardness and density. But maybe that’s the point: idolatrous practice is ubiquitous and well-entrenched, and it springs from hard hearts (not to mention dense minds). And (if I may stretch the analogy), the oak tree of idolatry is useful to man under only two conditions: (1) when it’s cut down; and (2) when it’s understood (as it is here) to signify death. One thing is certain: idolatry inevitably leads to death (or at least dormancy, pending repentance). It doesn’t matter how strong the culture of idolatry seems to be, how well-established and immovable it looks: it is, despite all appearances, dead where it stands.
In a way, the oak trees of scripture are parallel to cedars—whose strength and stature contribute to a caricature of pride. Indeed, oaks and cedars often appear side by side in Yahweh’s admonitions. For example, “For Yahweh of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks [allon] of Bashan; against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills; against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft. And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day.” (Isaiah 2:12-17) It doesn’t matter how strong you think you are, or how proud you are of your achievements or your ability to bend other men to your will. Such arrogance is idiotic when compared with the least of Yahweh’s endeavors. Pride and death stand side by side, just as humility before God parallels life.
Another prophet offers an example of one such proud nation, the Amorites, who had been blown away like dandelion fuzz before Yahweh’s Spirit: “Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them [the armies of Israel], whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks [allon]. I destroyed his fruit above and his roots beneath.” (Amos 2:9) In context, unfortunately, Amos is not congratulating Israel for having allowed Yahweh to work through them in battle, but is rather berating them for having over time become worse idolaters than the Amorites ever were. Alas, Amos’ words fell on deaf ears: unrepentant Israel would fall under the cruel lash of the Assyrians only a few decades after he spoke these words. Were it not for the promises of Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these ten tribes of Israel would have disappeared as thoroughly as had the Amorites. As it is, no one to this day knows who or where they are, but God has promised to reunite all twelve tribes in His future kingdom. Nice trick, after almost three millennia of exile and obscurity.
Zechariah offers another example of the relationship between pride and death: “Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars! Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined! Wail, oaks [allon] of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled! The sound of the wail of the shepherds, for their glory is ruined! The sound of the roar of the lions, for the thicket of the Jordan is ruined!” (Zechariah 11:1-3) The shepherds are the “leaders of the flock,” and the lions represent those in authority. Their power, the source of their pride, is to be taken away from them, symbolized as forests of cedar and oak being cut down or burned. The prophet says that Yahweh’s hand of protection over Israel will be removed: their pride will result in their death. “For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, declares Yahweh. Behold, I will cause each of them to fall into the hand of his neighbor, and each into the hand of his king, and they shall crush the land, and I will deliver none from their hand.” (Zechariah 11:6)
What would Israel have to do to bring upon itself rejection of this intensity from the God who had sworn to preserve it? These verses introduce a passage describing the dire consequences of Israel’s rejection of her Messiah—an event half a millennium in the prophet’s future. Zechariah goes on to speak of consigning the flock to slaughter. He predicts desperate hunger, even to the point of cannibalism—punishment Israel would suffer literally at the hands of the Romans within a generation of Christ’s crucifixion. He then predicts betrayal at the price of thirty pieces of silver, and of throwing this money to the potter. (See Matthew 27:3-7 for how this came to pass.) The chapter ends with a description of a coming “worthless shepherd,” the one we’ve come to know as the antichrist, who will be embraced by the lost world in ways the true Messiah never was. As Yahshua Himself prophesied to those “shepherds” and “lions” who would later crucify Him, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.” (John 5:42-43)
Isaiah speaks of the same dichotomy—the choice we must all make between good and evil, life and death, Yahweh and any conceivable alternative. He points out that the destruction of Israel, though well deserved, is not inevitable: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake Yahweh shall be consumed….” It’s the same principle we’ve seen a thousand times: those who forsake Yahweh will be forsaken by Yahweh. The choice is ours to make.
Isaiah then describes the nature of the repentance that will bring about this redemption: “For they [those who repent in righteousness] shall be ashamed of the oaks [’ayil, a generic large tree; the same word is translated “ram,” “leader,” “porch,” and “doorpost”] that you desired.” The “you” here are the unrepentant idolaters to whom the prophet was speaking. “And you shall blush for the gardens [pagan worship sites] that you have chosen. For you shall be like an oak [elah] whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.” (Isaiah 1:27-31) The idolaters are compared to a failing oak tree—they may look alive and strong, but without the “water” of God’s Spirit, they will be revealed to be what they really are: dead where they stand. And being found in this dead, dry state, they are easy prey for the fires of judgment. Note too what will ultimately set the forest ablaze: the “work” done by “the strong” (that is, the “rebels and sinners” who have been likened here to the dry oak tree). Basically, God is saying that He needn’t go out of His way to punish sinners. Their own actions will destroy them; their own choices will condemn them.
Virtually every prophet pursued this theme, and quite a few of them used the oak tree symbol to tie Israel’s idolatry to the death that would surely follow. Ezekiel said it this way: “Thus says the Lord Yahweh: ‘Clap your hands and stamp your foot and say, “Alas, because of all the evil abominations of the house of Israel, for they shall fall by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. He who is far off shall die of pestilence, and he who is near shall fall by the sword, and he who is left and is preserved shall die of famine. Thus I will spend my fury upon them….’” Note that the “fury of Yahweh” will be administered—at least in part—through the hand of man, the sword wielded by Israel’s enemies. If they had heeded the “blessings and cursings” passages of the Torah (such as Deuteronomy 28), they would have known that the reason for their misfortune was their own rebellion against God. In other words, all this misfortune should have encouraged them to examine their lives and repent of their idolatries.
God had only one objective in sending “sword, famine, and pestilence” upon His people: to encourage them to remember who He is. “And you shall know that I am Yahweh, when their slain lie among their idols around their altars, on every high hill, on all the mountaintops, under every green tree, and under every leafy oak [elah], wherever they offered pleasing aroma to all their idols. And I will stretch out My hand against them and make the land desolate and waste, in all their dwelling places, from the wilderness to Riblah.” That is, from the far south of the land to the far north. Riblah is mentioned in Yahweh’s excruciatingly specific Numbers 34 description of the borders of Israel. It is well within the borders of Syria at the moment, but during Christ’s Millennial kingdom, Israel’s borders will once again be pushed to their God-ordained limits (as they were under David). “Then they will know that I am Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 6:11-14) Once again, we are reminded that “knowing Yahweh” is the whole point of Yahweh’s punishing Israel for their idolatries. He wants them (and us) to live, and the only way that can happen is if we come to know Him. The word translated “know” here is the verb yada, meaning to know, perceive, see, find out, discern, distinguish, recognize, admit, acknowledge, and confess. It’s more than mere cognitive awareness, but also implies acceptance, belief, and acquiescence—the formation of a relationship.
Ezekiel also mentioned oaks in reference to the kingdom of Tyre, a people who became rich and powerful through trade upon the sea. “O Tyre, you have said, ‘I am perfect in beauty.’ Your borders are in the heart of the seas. Your builders made perfect your beauty. They made all your planks of fir trees from Senir. They took a cedar from Lebanon to make a mast for you. Of oaks [allon] of Bashan they made your oars. They made your deck of pines from the coasts of Cyprus, inlaid with ivory.” (Ezekiel 27:3-6) That doesn’t sound so sinister, you may be saying. They made oars for their galleys so they could ply the Mediterranean, trade with other nations, and become rich in the process—a perfect example of successful iron age capitalism. Tyre reminds me a lot of Victorian England, or twentieth century America—projecting power and growing rich in the process. But with riches and influence came arrogance and corruption. Their greed began to feed on itself: riches became their god. And the oaken oars of their ships made it all possible.
Once again, a seemingly off-hand mention of the oak tree symbol leads us to a significant principle: don’t rely upon wealth or power. Don’t worship money. It is a false, fickle god, not worthy of our devotion. If we read between the lines, we can perceive that during the golden age of Israel, Tyre was, as gentile nations go, a friend of Yahweh and His people. Their king Hiram is on record as having loved and respected David, offering invaluable help in the construction of Solomon’s temple in response to that friendship (see I Kings 5). But by Ezekiel’s day, they had sunk as far as Israel had into idolatry. This, I’m afraid, is a path that Great Britain and America have followed as well.
So at the height of their power, God’s prophet pronounces judgment upon Tyre: “Your rowers [remember the oars of oak?] have brought you out into the high seas. The east wind has wrecked you in the heart of the seas.” The Tyrians were a seafaring people, of course, but the “sea” also symbolically refers to gentile nations, many of whom were participants in Tyre’s destruction. “Your riches, your wares, your merchandise, your mariners and your pilots, your caulkers, your dealers in merchandise, and all your men of war who are in you, with all your crew that is in your midst, sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your fall. At the sound of the cry of your pilots the countryside shakes, and down from their ships come all who handle the oar….” Those oars of oak were the “engine” that drove the Tyrian economy, the foundation of their pride. Oars or rowing are mentioned at least four times in this passage. It is not my purpose here to trace the unbelievably improbable series of biblical prophecies concerning the demise of Tyre. For that, I’ll refer you to Josh McDowell’s 1972 classic Evidence that Demands a Verdict (pages 285-291). Peter Stoner once calculated the odds against Tyre’s undoing happening as the Bible predicted it to be 7.5 x 107 to 1—astronomical odds, any way you slice it—and yet, it took place precisely as Yahweh’s prophets predicted it.
My purpose, rather, is to echo the warning of the prophets concerning what was killing this prosperous—and once God-fearing—nation: pride, greed, and selfishness. Ezekiel goes on to state, “The mariners and all the pilots of the sea stand on the land and shout aloud over you and cry out bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes. They make themselves bald for you and put sackcloth on their waist [both signs of mourning and distress], and they weep over you in bitterness of soul, with bitter mourning. In their wailing they raise a lamentation for you and lament over you: ‘Who is like Tyre, like one destroyed in the midst of the sea? When your wares came from the seas, you satisfied many peoples. With your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth. Now you are wrecked by the seas, in the depths of the waters. Your merchandise and all your crew in your midst have sunk with you. All the inhabitants of the coastlands are appalled at you, and the hair of their kings bristles with horror. Their faces are convulsed. The merchants among the peoples hiss at you. You have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever.” (Ezekiel 27:26-36)
You may be asking, So what? This is all ancient history. Tyre went the way of the dinosaur a long, long time ago. Yes, but it is my experience that “history” in scripture virtually always bears significance beyond the mundane historical events. Everything, it seems, is prophetic, illustrative, or symbolic of something that affects our lives now, on a daily basis. And as I read Ezekiel 27 (and note that I edited out quite a bit), I was struck by the remarkable similarity to a prophecy that’s still yet to be fulfilled. The names have changed, but the situation—and the warning—is identical. I’m speaking of Revelation 18, and the demise of commercial Babylon.
Historically, Babylon was a city-state, as was Tyre. But as a symbol, Babylon describes a system of idolatry that will persist until the very end of the age. It is not only “religious,” but also has political and commercial permutations as well. It is, in short, Biblical shorthand for the worship of anything other than Yahweh. Tyre’s pride was founded upon her wealth. Her riches were derived from trade with the other nations huddled around the Mediterranean shore, nations she reached with fleets of galleys—hence the importance (symbolically) of the oak from which their oars were made. Commercial Babylon’s “sea” is the whole world, but her pride, greed, and self-adoration is but an extension of the sort of thing Ezekiel saw in Tyre.
And as John points out, the problem was more than just people acting out of their own self interest, simply trying to earn a living through trade. Babylon’s wealth and power (like Tyre’s) have become objects of worship to her, and worse, the whole scheme is demonically inspired: “After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. And he called out with a mighty voice, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living….’” Note that John sees a distinction between Babylon and both the “nations” and the “merchants of the earth.” While the “merchants” sell Babylon’s demonic agenda, and the “nations” buy into it all (making them her victims), Babylon itself is the proverbial eight hundred pound gorilla in the room, the entity whose pride and greed is driving the rebellion against God. Drunkenness and sexual immorality, beyond the obvious literal references, also speak symbolically of being filled with a spirit other than Yahweh’s, and of idolatry—i.e., giving to some other “god” the devotion that rightfully belongs to Yahweh alone.
Faced with such a foe—the enticement to abandon Yahweh in favor of shiny distractions and attractive substitutes—what are we to do? John has the answer: “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities….’” Babylon is all around us; her merchants incessantly lure us with enticing offers of pleasure and convenience, distractions that take our minds off what really matters. But we don’t have to play the game; we don’t have to participate or cooperate. Babylon is too strong, too well established—and too demonically empowered—for believers to fight her on their own. So the angel advises us to flee, run away, resist her blandishments and enticements—for if we don’t, we will be destroyed in her destruction.
Rather, the God who has “remembered her iniquities” will deal personally with Babylon. The angel prays, “Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds. Mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning, since in her heart she says, ‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’ For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire, for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her….” Having bought into Satan’s lies, Babylon thinks she’s so well established, nothing can bring her down. After all, the whole world has become dependent (or so she presumes) on what she has to offer.
I should explain that this passage is prophetic of a time yet future (though not by much), a time we can hardly imagine. It’s called the Tribulation—seven years (actually, schematic years of 360 days each—a total of exactly 2,520 days) in which God’s wrath is to be poured out full strength upon the earth, and man’s sinful propensities will be given free reign. The church will have been removed (“raptured”) from the earth sometime before this time of wrath begins, but vast multitudes (the “church of repentant Laodicea”—see Revelation 3:14-22) will belatedly come to faith as the Tribulation wears on—many of whom will pay for their new belief with their mortal lives. It is they (in particular) who are being encouraged to “flee from Babylon.” And it is they who will witness her sudden demise. I can only hit the high spots here, but again, I would refer you to my comprehensive work on Bible prophecy, The End of the Beginning, for the whole story.
The sudden “plagues” that will destroy commercial Babylon “in a single day” will very likely be connected to the first or second Trumpet Judgments, discussed in Revelation 8:6-9—apparently thermonuclear war, and (if I may speculate) the eruption and collapse of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands, precipitating the largest and most destructive tsunami man has ever seen, affecting major cities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. “And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, ‘Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city [read: system], Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come….’” The “kings of the earth” reference makes it clear that the politicians are up to their necks in the evil of Babylon. We tend to think of kings and presidents as the ones who hold the reins of power, but here Babylon’s denizens are unmasked: they are the power behind a thousand thrones. After commercial Babylon falls, the politicians’ schemes won’t last much longer.
Babylon then (its commercial and industrial aspects, at least) are to be suddenly and unexpectedly destroyed. My research places this event sometime during the first half of the Tribulation, perhaps two and a half years into it—that is, a year or so before the abomination of desolation (when the Antichrist will assume dictatorial control over the entire earth). The collapse of the world’s commercial and financial infrastructure (commercial Babylon) will be followed inexorably by the rapid unraveling of the earth’s system of governments—up to and including the United Nations (political Babylon). That will leave but one permutation of false worship left for God to deal with: religious Babylon—“Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth,” as its’ described in detail in Revelation 17. Actually, we see this facet of Babylon still in play until the very end of the Tribulation: its destruction is described as part of the seventh bowl judgment—the last event in the ultimate series of God’s judgments upon the earth (see Revelation 16:19).
But we weren’t done looking at the fall of commercial Babylon, some four and a half years previously—the sudden and total collapse of the world’s commercial, industrial, and financial infrastructure. The first things to go are the luxuries, the perks of power and prestige that made the whore of Babylon so irresistible to so many for so long: “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls….” That last entry—the bodies and souls of men—is telling. It was through the machinations of Babylon, supported and abetted by the “merchants” and “kings” who personally benefited by pandering to her, that so many people were held in bondage—and not just during the Tribulation, but in all the ages leading up to it. The angel’s advice during the Tribulation was to “Come out of [Babylon], my people.” But Isaiah, Zechariah, and Jeremiah all warned us—multiple times—to “Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins. It is time for Yahweh’s vengeance; he will pay her what she deserves,” as it’s worded in Jeremiah 51:6 (NIV).
It’s not like Babylon had to work all that hard for her successes. Many of us, like Esau of old, were all too willing to sell our birthright cheaply—for a bowl of soup, as it were. A few trinkets were enough to distract us from what really matters: a familial relationship with the True and Living God. So John’s angel observes, “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again! The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, ‘Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste….” Interesting. They’re not particularly concerned when billions of people are held in bondage through falsehood and paranoia. They don’t much care when Christians and Jews are hounded and slaughtered for their faith. But these guys are really upset when they realize that they’re not going to be making any more obscene profits from doing business with Babylon.
The hand wringing isn’t restricted to the top tiers of the food chain, either. Even the middlemen, the grunts who made a living doing Babylon’s dirty work, are shocked at the suddenness and extent of the devastation: “And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, ‘What city was like the great city?’ And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out, ‘Alas, alas, for the great city where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in a single hour she has been laid waste….’” There’s nothing quite as sure to get your attention as a cut in pay. They may be mourning that the world’s entire commercial infrastructure has collapsed like a house of cards, but what they’re really thinking is, How am I going to feed my family now? You don’t have to be wicked to make disastrously bad decisions. To place your trust in “business as usual” or “the way it has always been done” may seem prudent, but it’s actually a “faith in nothing.” This is what they call a “black swan” event: people think it can’t happen, just because it never has (to their knowledge). But we were warned: don’t place your trust in anything except Yahweh. Babylon (“the great”) is fallen, fallen.
Not everyone is upset, however. Remember those who were told to “Come out of her, My people?” Some of us did. We didn’t buy Babylon’s lies. We refused to be distracted and deceived by her counterfeit gods and substitute saviors. So the angel tells us that it’s okay for the redeemed (who are now in heaven) to make the politically incorrect response: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” But horrible things have happened! People are going to starve! Oh, the humanity! This time, there are no government bailouts forthcoming, no FEMA agents on the scene, no insurance payouts, no Red Cross volunteers. There aren’t even going to be any church relief efforts—the only thing that has really worked all that well during many previous disasters. Everything is gone. There’s no work, no money, no hope. Anarchy reigns supreme. Preppers, hoarders, and survivalists figure they can ride out the storm at first, only to find themselves set upon and attacked by hungry mobs—angry that they themselves didn’t have the foresight to plan ahead. The wealth must be redistributed! Even if “the wealth” is now only a loaf of bread and a bottle of clean water. God says, “I told you so. I told you not to trust anyone or anything but Me. But you wouldn’t listen.”
The very fabric of society will unravel. “Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more.” Look at what will be destroyed. (1) the entertainment industry: “And the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more,” (2) manufacturing: “and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more,” (3) agribusiness: “and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more,” (4) energy: “and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more,” (5) traditional family structure: “and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more,” all because (6) financial and commercial Babylon has fallen: “for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.” Even though we seldom recognize the connection nowadays, God makes it clear that alliance with the world is the same thing as war against Him: “And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth.” (Revelation 18) It’s shocking but true: Babylon, the systematic devotion of man to things other than Yahweh, is responsible for all of the hatred, war, oppression, famine, and death that the world has seen. That’s why we are instructed to “rejoice” at her ignominious fall.
Now we know why the oars of the galleys of Tyre were made out of oak. Their only purpose was to propel idolatrous man toward his death. Our preferred destination, however, is life, which can be found only where Yahweh is.