3.3 Every Tree in the Garden
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3
Every Tree in the Garden
Having taken a good long look at the fauna in God’s symbolic lexicon, it’s now time to turn our attention to the flora—again with an eye toward exploring its usage as symbols in scripture. In their own unique way, trees, shrubs, and grasses are living creatures, designed by Yahweh to fulfill a need (actually, several of them) on this planet. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, replacing it with oxygen; their roots hold the soil in place; they provide fruits and grains for us to eat (and their leaves are the base of the food chain for the animals who share our world, as well). Basically, plants make our planet livable.
The very fact that plants are alive, but enjoy a very different kind of life than animals do, should perhaps be taken as confirmation that by God’s design, there is more to our lives than our mere mortal existence. That is, if plants and animals are both “alive” but with radically different modes of life, would it not be reasonable to suspect that there might be yet another kind of life-form within our universe? I’m speaking, of course, of spiritual life, the kind of quickening, we’re told, shared by God and His created spirit-messengers, commonly known as angels (and yes, demons as well), hinted at throughout scripture. Spiritual life is as different in its characteristics from faunal life as faunal is from floral. Spirits are immortal, incorporeal, unrestricted in mobility, and powerful beyond our imagining.
Creative storytellers in our past have wondered what it would be like if trees could awaken to have the same kind of life that people do. From Aesop’s fables to Dante’s Inferno, to Tolkein’s droll “ents” in the Lord of the Rings, to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies (and let us not forget VeggieTales), plants and trees have “come to life” in the imaginations of men, taking on “human” characteristics and emotions. These are all just the ingenious fantasies of imaginative men, of course: they have no power to actually change one kind of life into another. But Yahweh does. That is, He has not only the power, but also the desire to take mortal men and transform the life we experience in this world into a different kind of life—the sort of spiritual life by which He Himself is defined. Why would He do this? Because (as Paul puts it), “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption….” And God wants us to inherit His kingdom—it’s the whole reason we were created. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” (I Corinthians 15:50-51) Yes, changed from mortal men, subject to decay and corruption, into spiritual beings who can live forever in Yahweh’s presence—if we choose to allow God to transform us according to His wishes. Imagine being transformed from a humble shrub into a sentient human being. The transformation God has in mind will be even more radical.
But for now, plants are still plants, and people must remain mortal—which is not to say plants don’t have anything to teach us. As with so many other things in our world, God has enlisted plants, and especially trees, to teach us about His plan and purpose. The lessons began in Eden. “And Yahweh, God, planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground Yahweh, God, made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:8-9) Trees aren’t accidental quirks of evolutionary happenstance. Like us, God created them on purpose. We have only to ask why. “Yahweh, God, took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Even when things were perfect, we had a job to do. Eden was no “welfare state.” “And Yahweh, God, commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17) As we saw in our study of birds, different kinds of plants have been recruited to reveal diverse truths. Here, at the very beginning, we are being given our first simple lesson in holiness—separation of good from evil. Most trees promoted life; but one of them could, in its own fashion, bring death. Adam and Eve, like all of us ever since, were instructed to be discerning—and to be holy.
In addition to the individual symbolic lessons God has assigned to differing varieties of plants—the subject of this chapter—we are generally reminded that they, like us, are living things: they’ll thrive or wither according to how much water is available to them. And what does water symbolize? Restoration and cleansing. So, “Thus says Yahweh: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from Yahweh. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land….” The man who trusts only himself will be neither restored nor cleansed by Yahweh. Worse, salt inhibits the growth of plant life.
On the other hand, “Blessed is the man who trusts [batach: to have confidence, to feel safe] in Yahweh, whose trust [mibtach: refuge—the object or state of confidence] is Yahweh. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:5-8) Note two things. First, if our hope is in Yahweh (and not our own devices), we need not worry about external circumstances: God’s provision will prove sufficient. And second, the evidence of our trust in Him is our continued “fruit bearing,” specifically, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and everything else on the Galatians 5 list.
“Bearing fruit” is what it’s all about, whether you’re a plant or a person. The fruit, the genetic component of a plant’s being, is what passes life onto the next generation. Without it, extinction looms. So Yahweh stressed seeds and fruit in the creation account: “Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth’; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day…. And God said [to Adam], ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’” (Genesis 1:11-13, 29) There is a stunning truth here, one we usually miss altogether. What people were given to eat is (as God phrased it) the seed, the fruit, the genetic part of the plant. In other words, in order for us to be nourished and sustained, future generations of plants must be sacrificed. One type of life is offered up in order that another, higher form of life may survive and thrive.
This picture is mirrored in the Levitical sacrifices, in which an innocent animal is sacrificed on behalf of guilty mankind—to atone for his sin or to provide any of a dozen other functions connecting us with our Creator. In each case, a lower life-form provides life-giving nourishment or sustenance to the higher. This life-for-life swap is, at its core, a picture of grace. It is the essence of the unmerited favor that Yahweh wishes to shower upon us. We don’t provide our own food: a plant (or lower animal) must, by God’s design, sacrifice its life so that we may eat. And neither can we provide our own redemption, salvation, or justification. But Christ’s sacrifice as a man doesn’t make our mortal life possible, but rather our subsequent spiritual existence. God took on the form of a “lower being” (man) in order to sacrifice Himself so that we could then live in His presence. This explains why God is so preoccupied with his children “bearing fruit”—the spiritual variety—themselves. Future generations of believers depend on what we do here and now.
As Eve learned in the Garden, “fruit” can be either good or bad. We can’t logically assume that everything that crops up in life is beneficial: we are to be discerning. While we (who are far from perfect ourselves) are not to judge or condemn other people, we are instructed to be “fruit inspectors.” So Yahshua warns us, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Patently good advice, but how are we to tell who they are? “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” This “good fruit” boils down to one thing: love (from which flows a whole range of other positive attributes). This simple litmus test will help us separate the true prophets (forth-tellers of God’s word, if not foretellers) from the false ones. The false prophets may be “correct” about a great many things, but they will foster an atmosphere of dissention, pride in one’s superior knowledge, impatience with (and condemnation of) people less “perfect” than themselves, or overt hatred toward lost people for whom Christ died. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20) Note that He doesn’t say that we are to “cut them down and throw them into the fire.” That’s God’s job—to be done on His schedule.
This all makes dealing with the lost one of the trickiest facets of the believer’s experience: loving some people while hating the falsehoods they espouse is not exactly easy to sort out in the real world. It helps to remember that the vast majority of today’s apostates and idolaters are not so much perpetrators as they are victims, dupes, and collateral damage—held in error and bondage by the comparatively few “gurus” at the top of the cultural food chain (if not by their own lusts). So Paul’s advice to young Timothy helps to bring things into focus: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (II Timothy 3:1-5) Note once again that he didn’t say to attack such people, even though their “fruit” is bitter and inedible. He merely said to leave them alone—have nothing to do with them. It is perfectly appropriate to attack messages of hate and ignorance, but not the messengers of such things. Yahweh will handle that Himself, personally, in His own good time.
Yahshua used the “fruit” symbol time and time again: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:42-45) As an example of how this works, we note the records of the lives of the kings of Judah, some of whom were listed as “doing right in the sight of Yahweh,” while others “did evil.” What they said and did (their “fruit”) defined their status as “evil” or “good.” But the “good” kings made disastrous mistakes at times, and the “evil” kings no doubt had their moments of benevolence as well. What characterized them as being good or evil—what prompted them to say and do the things they did—was their relationship (or lack of it) with Yahweh. It is His Holy Spirit that produces “good fruit” in us. So if that Spirit is missing in one’s life, so will be the ability to produce good fruit: you’ll be more like that miserable shrub in the desert of which Jeremiah spoke.
Especially telling of our attitudes are the words we speak: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.” Yahshua is pointing out the futility of trying to pick “good fruit” off of a “bad tree.” There’s no point pretending to be godly if you’ve made God your enemy. Even if your peers are still clueless, God knows what you’re really doing—and why. “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” There are several prominent men in America right now who love to put the title “Reverend” before their names, but who travel the country stirring up hatred and division. How can folks miss the fact that “reverence” for God is the last thing motivating them? “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37) It can’t be stressed enough that what we say reveals what we think—and whose we are.
As always, we should define our terms. The usual Hebrew word for “tree” is ’ets, but it connotes more than just the living plant itself. It can also mean wood, timber, lumber, a plank, stick, or log, or even some of the things made from trees, like firewood or a gallows. The Greek dendron is apparently more focused, meaning only “tree” in the normal sense. But a second Greek noun, xulon, picks up the figurative slack, denoting not only a tree (including its metaphorical sense—a gallows or cross), but also wood, timber, or that which is made from wood. Thus xulon is the word used to describe the clubs or cudgels wielded by the mob sent to arrest Yahshua, and the “stocks” used to restrain the hands and feet of prisoners like Paul.
Notice, then, that the wood itself is an essential component of the Levitical sacrifices. For example, “Then he shall kill the bull before Yahweh, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood [’ets] on the fire. And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, as an offering by fire with a pleasing aroma to Yahweh.” (Leviticus 1:5-9) The symbolic picture is that of judgment: not only was the altar (though made of acacia wood) covered with plates of bronze (indicating judgment: see Numbers 16:38), but the means of judgment’s implementation was fire (as opposed to what theoretically could have been chosen as symbols by God, but weren’t—such things as immersion in water, burial in the ground, being allowed to rot, or being devoured by beasts). Fire (as we have seen) is linked to the separation of pure elements in metal (like bronze or brass) from the dross and impurities, because separation—not punishment—is the essence of “judgment” in scriptural usage. The issue is holiness: it transpires that God isn’t particularly shocked or angered when people are naughty, but the fact remains that only when they are separated from the wicked world—and set apart instead to Him—are they able to stand in His presence. “Judgment,” then, is merely a statement of what the reality is, a declaration or revelation of the choices we ourselves have already made, for good or ill.
If fire and bronze are God’s chosen symbols indicating judgment, then wood is the element He specified to make judgment “live.” That is, wood is the fuel that keeps the fire alive. Hence Yahweh’s instruction: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not go out. The priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and he shall arrange the burnt offering on it and shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.” (Leviticus 6:12-13) Again, considering the symbolic alternatives God could have chosen but didn’t, note that He didn’t specify olive oil (a flammable liquid) as fuel for the fires of judgment: olive oil, rather, was enlisted as a symbol representing the Holy Spirit of Yahweh. The Spirit does not impose its will upon man. It is our own choices that bring judgment upon us. The Spirit merely reveals the choices we ourselves have made. The only other readily available fuel I can think of (since the Israelites didn’t have coal, petroleum, hydroelectric power, nuclear reactors, or wind farms) was dried animal dung—which, as our pioneer forefathers discovered, burns quite nicely, and was on hand (since they were shepherds and herdsmen) in prodigious quantities. But using dried poo on God’s altar would also have sent the wrong message—that God will make your mortal life crap if you don’t religiously toe his line: “Love Me or else!” Yes, our choices have consequences, but they’re almost invariably natural consequences. God doesn’t have to go out of His way to “penalize” you for breaking the law of gravity (for instance)—jumping off the roof of the tall building. The street below will provide its own “punishment.”
Wood, on the other hand, was a perfectly appropriate symbol for the fuel of God’s separation/judgment. It is something that was once alive, but was cut down—sacrificed—to achieve Yahweh’s purpose. In that respect, it is one more metaphor revealing the mission of the Messiah. But notice something else: the “fat of the peace offerings” is there to help keep the fire constantly going. Fat, if you’ll recall, represents “the very best,” both on Yahweh’s part—sending His “only begotten Son”—and on ours: the service and devotion we owe our God in light of His unfathomable love. Fat, like olive oil, is flammable (something you may discover by barbecuing cheap hamburger). On the altar, it helps to keep the metaphor of judgment through separation alive and burning brightly.
Because of this intimate association between wood and judgment, we should not be surprised to find that wooden implements may be defiled—made symbolically unclean and unfit for use in Yahweh’s service (until it is cleansed). “And these are unclean to you among the swarming things that swarm on the ground: the mole rat, the mouse, the great lizard of any kind, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. These are unclean to you among all that swarm. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until the evening. And anything on which any of them falls when they are dead shall be unclean, whether it is an article of wood [’ets] or a garment or a skin or a sack, any article that is used for any purpose. It must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening; then it shall be clean.” (Leviticus 11:29:32) At issue here is what may be properly used in God’s service. Being touched by death and uncleanness, even unintentionally, disqualifies something (or someone) from serving, at least temporarily. The classic example is Israel itself, which has found itself disqualified from carrying (or being) the torch of Yahweh’s truth for the past two millennia. In the wake of their national rejection of the Messiah (though many individuals may have believed in Him), they found themselves being “fallen upon” by the dead, unclean vermin that was Rome. Israel will someday find themselves back in Yahweh’s service, but not until the sun has set on their apostasy, and not until they have been washed clean by the Holy Spirit.
The sad state of affairs in which Israel finds itself today (notwithstanding the fact that Yahweh has finally begun to bring them back into the Land) is due to something Moses foresaw even before they entered Canaan for the first time. “When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of Yahweh your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed….” In the most harrowing prophetic high-wire act you can imagine, this very thing happened: the political existence of Israel was “utterly destroyed,” while at the same time, God preserved intact their family identity, as promised in such passages as Genesis 22:15-18. To my knowledge, this circumstance is absolutely unique in the annals of human history. Met any Hittites, Amorites, or Medes lately?
“And Yahweh will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where Yahweh will drive you…." Few in number? Yes: there are more people living in Guatemala than there are Jews in the world today—some four thousand years after the covenant was established with Abraham. And how’s this for a revealing statistical comparison? In Numbers 26:51, the total fighting force available to Israel—a number that included every able-bodied male from twenty years old upward—was 601,730. A recent survey put Israel’s military strength—including active duty, reserves, and paramilitary forces—at 749,550. And these days, their ranks include women! It seems to me that Israel hasn’t gained much ground (in terms we can actually track) in the past thirty-five hundred years. They haven’t gone extinct, but they haven’t (yet) become as numerous as the visible stars or the proverbial sand on the seashore, either. Their national blessing awaits their national repentance.
“And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” (Deuteronomy 4:25-28; cf. Deuteronomy 28:36, 64) Did you catch the poetic connection between the sin and its natural consequences here? “If you act corruptly by making a carved image… you will serve gods of wood and stone.” In other words, the Israelites of old—just like all the rest of us—got to choose their own destiny: life or death, blessing or cursing, the logic of love or the insanity of service to lifeless, powerless objects that they themselves had made. It boggles the mind—until we wake up and realize that most of us do the same thing today. Oh, we don’t carve idols per se, but we do serve things we’ve made, things that are just as dead, objects as dumb as a box of rocks. Our careers. Our homes. Our toys. Our cultural heroes. Our pleasures. A hundred years from now, that for which we gave up our lives will look positively idiotic—unless that object of devotion is still there, still worthy, still righteous and loving and significant. Only one thing fits that description: Yahweh.
That’s why Moses warned his people to destroy any and all wooden idols they found in the land of Canaan: “You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3) Asherim (the plural of Asherah) are the groves the pagans set up for idol worship (or the wooden carved images themselves). The name (Asherah) is synonymous with the Babylonian-Canaanite “goddess” of fertility, fortune and happiness, the supposed consort (or mother, in some permutations) of Ba’al. She is also known (depending on where you lived and what language you spoke) as Asheroth, Astarte, and Ishtar (the origin of our word “Easter”). Modeled on the proto-Babylonian queen Semiramis (wife of Nimrod and mother of Tammuz), this same “goddess” became known outside her home neighborhood as Isis, Cybele, Fortuna, Ceres, Rhea, Minerva, Athena, Diana, Venus, Parvati, and Shing Moo, and she also takes on the persona of the “goddess of fortresses” and the “queen of heaven” (the form in which she is worshipped among pagan-leaning Catholics even today, much to Mary’s chagrin, I’m sure).
If the Israelites weren’t supposed to leave any of the pagan worship centers standing, they certainly weren’t to create such places themselves—especially as some sort of blending or compromise between the worship of Yahweh and the pagan rites of Canaan. “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of Yahweh your God that you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which Yahweh your God hates.” (Deuteronomy 16:21-22) That “pillar” (Hebrew: matsebah) could be anything from the stump of a tree used for ritual purposes to a stone obelisk like those found in Egypt—or Washington D.C., for that matter. Why do Christians—especially American Christians—find it so hard to follow God’s lead? Yahweh says He hates pillars, so we erect an obelisk like the heathens do to celebrate the life of our first, and perhaps most godly, president! Something’s wrong here. Compromise (the antithesis of holiness) is bad enough; willful disobedience (precipitated by willful ignorance) is even worse.
Such things (compromise and ignorant insubordination) inevitably lead to purposeful rebellion. Once Solomon compromised with Babylon during his old age, it was all downhill for Israel: “And Judah [under Rehoboam, the son of Solomon] did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh, and they provoked Him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done.” In case you’re fuzzy on your history, that’s a lot. “For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that Yahweh drove out before the people of Israel.” (I Kings 14:22-23) My knee-jerk reaction is to condemn Israel for being so unbelievably stupid (in light of Yahweh’s instructions). But then I remember the place from which my beloved America has fallen, and all I can do is weep. In a land that has (largely) forsaken God in its pursuit of power, pleasure, and money, I must admit that we too place “Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree.” And we are cursed as well with our own shameless “male cult prostitutes.” They’re called “lawyers.”
Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s infamous recipe for successful rebellion in Henry VI, “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (which is echoed in Saul Alinsky’s promotion of lawless anarchy as a means by which a socialist utopia might be created), lawyers aren’t the only whores in Babylon’s brothel. The politicians, princes, pundits, and even some of the preachers, the academicians, captains of industry, and cultural champions of our day—anyone and everyone who conspires to compete against Yahweh for man’s affections, attention, and authority—is castigated in scripture as a spiritually adulterous “idol maker.” Isaiah writes, “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit.” Note: it’s not only the carved image that’s “nothing.” It’s also the one who makes it. “Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together….” Three times in this one short passage, “shame” is pronounced on those who make things designed to detract from God’s authority.
Isaiah then points out how ridiculous it is to make an idol out of a tree: “The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.” As I said before, nobody actually thinks such idols are real gods. Rather, they represent what the idolater considers worthy of his worship. Thus the prophet has identified the chosen “god” of idolatrous man: man himself, the deity of atheistic secular humanism. “He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it….” Ironically, man relies upon Yahweh to provide him with the raw materials from which to carve his idol.
“Then it becomes fuel for a man.” And this is where fallen man’s “brilliant intellect” is proved to be utter foolishness. The same tree (something God created and nourished) is used by man for both “sacred” and “profane” purposes—proving (if we would but open our eyes) that the wood in itself—that substance that comprises the idol—is nothing special: “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!...’” It should be patently obvious (but apparently isn’t) that nothing we have made—or even that God has made—is able to help us. Only Yahweh Himself can provide for us, deliver us (from both our enemies and ourselves), and show real love to us.
Why can’t idolaters perceive the obvious? Isaiah explains that, too: “They know not, nor do they discern, for He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (Isaiah 44:9-11, 13-20) We see this sort of thing over and over again in scripture: people choose to reject the word of God, so in response, God makes the truth unavailable to them—giving them precisely what they wanted: self-delusion. How many times can you slam the door in Yahweh’s face (so to speak) before He’ll get tired of the noise and lock it?
Isaiah brought all of these images—idols, groves of trees used for idol worship, sin, lust, delusion, and death—together in one scathing indictment: “Who are you mocking? Against whom do you open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue? Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit, you who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks?” (Isaiah 57:4-5) The mention of the “slaughter of children” is a reference to what is arguably the most horrific form of idol worship of them all—that of Molech (a.k.a. Chemosh), whose devotees burned their children alive to appease him in groves like the Valley of Hinnom, just south of the old city of Jerusalem. This abomination earned “Gehenna” a place in the metaphorical lexicon of Christ: He used the word as a euphemism for hell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this practice—in a manner of speaking—is still with us. I find it sadly ironic that the people who most vociferously defend the “trees” (everything from the rain forest to the sustainable logging industry, with all their political corollaries—whales, harp seals, polar bears, snail darters, etc.) are usually the same people who are religiously hysterical about “women’s reproductive rights,” that is, the legal right to abort their unborn babies (preferably at the public’s expense). There’s nothing wrong with safeguarding the environment, of course: it was Adam’s day job, and God still requires it of us. But really, I don’t get it: if the lives of trees and animals and fish are so precious to liberals, why do they consider human life so utterly worthless? I’m afraid Molech worship is alive and well among the children of transgression and the offspring of deceit, who burn with lust to this very day.
Trees (well, one of them) figured heavily in the imagery surrounding God’s plan for man’s redemption. I’m speaking, of course, of the “cross” of Christ, sometimes referred to euphemistically as a “tree.” As I said, the Hebrew word for tree (’ets) is sufficiently broad in its usage to encompass a gallows or cross. And in Greek, the word xulon is employed to describe things made from wood—including the implement of Christ’s crucifixion. The word normally translated “cross” is stauros, which speaks not of the material from which it’s made, but its shape: it is literally a stake, pole, or pike—not a “T” shaped device. Stauros is derived from the verb histemi, meaning “to stand upright.” The xulon, on the other hand, describes its composition, its origin—something once living that had given its life in the service of God and man.
Even though crucifixion as a means of execution wasn’t invented until the rise of Assyria (perhaps 700 BC), the Torah contains a prophetic reference to “hanging someone on a tree,” designed to help us understand the spiritual function of the cross. “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that Yahweh your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) Hanging someone on a tree was not (at this point in time) a method of execution, but rather a way of subjecting his corpse to disgrace and ridicule. It was seen as the ultimate insult—and as a warning to those who might be tempted to follow in the victim’s footsteps. So we see Joshua employing the practice in the early days of the conquest of Canaan: “And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (Joshua 8:29) Joshua was careful to follow the letter of the Torah, even as he dealt with the corrupt kings of Canaan, the leaders of pagan society. Another example: “Afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day.” (Joshua 10:26-27)
Notice a few factors: (1) Hanging a man on a tree meant he was cursed by God—not just by men. (2) Since sunset is a metaphor for the end of one’s mortal life, leaving the dead man hanging on the tree overnight would have been symbolic of cursing him in the afterlife. And that is Yahweh’s prerogative alone. Man is therefore being warned (as he is so often) not to usurp the authority of God. Specifically, we are not to take it upon ourselves to determine whether a man is saved or lost, or, if he’s obviously lost, to decide whether he’s damned or “merely” spiritually lifeless. These issues are not our call. (3) Such usurpation defiles the land (or the life, as the case may be)—making it unsuitable for Yahweh’s purposes: filthy and in need of cleansing.
Paul—whose thought process admittedly isn’t all that easy to follow—ties it all together for us. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them….’” His first point is that we’re all cursed, for we haven’t perfectly kept God’s law. And there’s no point in kidding yourself, as he himself (being a Pharisee) had done for years: if you’re relying on your own good works (i.e., your super-human ability to flawlessly keep every nuance of every precept in the Torah), then you are—by the Torah’s definition—cursed, for no one has ever been perfectly successful in performing the rites of the Law, no matter how much they tried, no matter how much they loved Yahweh. Paul left unanswered the issue of whether or not it’s theoretically possible to be saved by keeping the Torah. As a practical matter, it can’t be done, and it hasn’t been done. Note that he’s not saying that the Torah shouldn’t be observed, nor that it’s obsolete. He’s merely stating what should be obvious: nobody was ever saved, justified, or redeemed before God by his own adherence to God’s Instructions.
That, of course, leaves us in a pickle: we’re all cursed, disqualified by our own actions from participation in Yahweh’s life. So Paul points out what Abraham (long before the Torah even existed) discovered: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them….’” In other words, there is a difference between obedience (which nobody, from Adam on down, has ever been able to demonstrate to God’s satisfaction) and faith (which is accessible to every human who ever lived, even if he never even heard of the Torah).
So far, so good, but it all begs the question: faith in what? Abraham, for his part, believed in specific promises that had personally been made by God to him and his progeny, and his faith was counted by Yahweh as righteousness. But God made no such temporal promises to us, nor did he demand of us our willingness to slay our firstborn to prove our trust. No, the faith we are asked to exercise resides in the very object lesson provided by Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son Isaac: it was all designed to teach us to trust Yahshua. And this is where the tree comes into the picture: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written [in Deuteronomy 21:23], ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ [Greek: xulon]—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:10-14) Those living before Christ’s advent, of course, didn’t have the specific details of His atoning work in which to exercise their faith. But they didn’t have to. Job, in the oldest writings in the entire Bible, stated his faith that “his Redeemer lived,” and that he would someday see Him for himself (see Job 19:25-27). For that matter, Adam and Eve had enough evidence to support their faith in a coming Redeemer before they even left the Garden: see Genesis 3:15.
The “firewood” in the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is analogous to the “tree” upon which the Messiah was offered up: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.” Other symbolic correlations here: Abraham=Yahweh; Isaac=Yahshua; fire=judgment for the sins of mankind; and the knife seems to represent the Holy Spirit: that which achieves holiness, separating good from evil, life from death. Note that they (in the end, Yahweh and Yahshua) went together to the place of sacrifice. “And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!” And he said, ‘Here am I, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’” That’s one of those “wow” statements that we all too often gloss over. Not only had Yahweh miraculously provided Abraham with a son in his old age (who was now playing the part of the sacrificial lamb in this little drama), but Yahweh also provided the ram to literally stand in for Isaac on the altar. This substitution is the essence of grace: the innocent paying the penalty for the guilty. It is mirrored a hundred different ways in the Torah: Yahweh provided for Himself the Lamb for the burnt offering. That “Lamb’s” name is Yahshua, meaning “Yahweh is Salvation.”
“So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him [Mount Moriah, the very spot where Yahshua would be crucified two thousand years later], Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” Here we can see the graphic equivalence between Isaac’s firewood and Yahshua’s cross. “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’” (Genesis 22:6-12) I’m pretty sure the issue wasn’t exactly whether or not Abraham was willing to kill his son on that altar. A lot of Molech worshipers did that. Rather, it was his unshakable faith that Yahweh’s promise—to bless the whole world through his son Isaac—was genuine. Abraham believed that God would keep His covenant no matter what he did—even if He had to raise Isaac from the dead to do it.
A few more “tree” examples from the Tanach may help to round out our understanding. When interpreting the dream of a couple of his cellmates in prison, Joseph predicted very different results from two rather similar dreams (both of which, it transpired, came about just as Joseph had foreseen). The butler (i.e., the king’s cupbearer) saw a vine with three branches budding grapes, which he made into wine for the pharaoh. Joseph interpreted this to mean that “within three days” the cupbearer would be restored to his former station. The tree (the vine) was bursting with life. This may be a subtle prophecy of Christ’s resurrection—of Yahshua being restored to His rightful former glory within three days of His trial. But there’s a flip side to this coin: “When the chief baker saw that the interpretation [of the cupbearer’s dream] was favorable, he said to Joseph, ‘I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.’ And Joseph answered and said, ‘This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.’” (Genesis 40:16-19) Birds, you’ll recall, represent the consequences of our choices. In this case, the choice had been made (by the guilty baker) to usurp what rightfully belonged to the king—ultimately symbolic of Yahweh. The three days are the same three days seen previously, but this time the picture is that of someone rejecting that which Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection signified—Yahweh’s means of reconciliation. The consequence of choosing to thus rebel against the King (which is what this rejection of His provision symbolizes) is death—followed by the disgrace of being hanged on a tree. In a way, the difference between the butler and the baker represents the dichotomy between religion and relationship. The baker is metaphorical of those who would usurp Yahweh’s authority by trying to reach Him by means of their own invention. But the cupbearer conveys life and pleasure to the King by rightly handling the wine—representative of the blood of Christ.
The tree plays a same-but-different role in the Book of Esther. This time it’s a gallows intended for the servant of God, Mordecai. If we see Mordecai as prophetic of Christ, and Haman symbolic of Satan, this little morality play comes into sharper focus: “But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai.” Satan hated it when Christ withstood his temptations, and he hates us when we refuse to cave in to his pressure. We need neither give him respect nor tremble in fear at his presence. “Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh.” I see Zeresh and these “friends” as those who advance Satan’s cause in this world, giving aid to our adversary and doing his bidding. “And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king. Then Haman said, ‘Even Queen Esther let no one but me come with the king to the feast she prepared.” We read about that feast, if you’ll recall, in our study of “horses.” “And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king. Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate….’” Queen Esther, if I’m not mistaken, is symbolic of Yahweh’s beloved and redeemed believers. She had been raised and taught by her uncle Mordecai (read: Yahshua), though Haman (read: Satan) didn’t comprehend their true relationship—a fact that would destroy him in the end. Note that Esther is forced by her circumstances to deal with Haman on a daily basis (just as we are). But her relationships with the King (read: Yahweh) and Mordecai (Christ) enable her to overcome the constant peril.
And this is where the “tree” comes into play: “Then [Haman’s] wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, ‘Let a gallows [’ets] fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it. Then go joyfully with the king to the feast.’ This idea pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made. (Esther 5:9-14) The prophetic parallels to the crucifixion of Yahshua are hard to miss. To make a long story short, Haman ended up getting hanged on the very gallows he had built to execute Mordecai. The same thing (sort of) happened in the life of Christ, but with a twist. Satan intended to do away with the Messiah once and for all at Calvary, but his plan backfired because he didn’t factor in the power of the Living God. Yes, the devil succeeding in getting almost everybody’s envy and hatred focused on Christ, and he even succeeded in getting him crucified (though in truth, Yahshua went to the cross voluntarily). But in the end, we’ll see Satan, like Haman, “hoisted on his own petard,” so to speak. Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—foretold in the first three of Yahweh’s seven holy convocations—spelled doom for our adversary. Just like Haman, Satan was blinded by his hatred. He couldn’t see what was really going on right under his nose.
There’s a subcurrent that keeps flowing through these “tree” passages—something that only the comatose could chalk up to coincidence. It’s the recurring reference to “three days.” With Abraham and Isaac, it was the journey in faith to the place of sacrifice: “And he cut the wood [’ets] for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” (Genesis 22:3-4) In Joseph’s prison tale, it was the length of time between the vision (i.e., the promise) and its fulfillment. In Esther’s story, it describes the period of fasting and prayer that preceded Esther’s bold, illegal, and potentially lethal approach to her husband the king concerning the “Haman problem.” She sent to her uncle Mordecai this message: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16) In retrospect, we can see that the “three days” in each case were prophetic of the passion: three successive days, three essential acts, to be celebrated separately in the first three Levitical convocations: Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Firstfruits—the three most significant days in all of human history.
There’s one more generic “tree” incident worth mentioning, and sure enough, the “three days” are there once again. “They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried to Yahweh, and Yahweh showed him a log [’ets], and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” (Exodus 15:22-25) Our lives, mired in sin and bitterness, can become sweet through the cross of Christ, through which he cleansed us and refreshed our souls. Where did this happen? Three days’ walk into the wilderness—the place of anticipation and preparation. These three days are, once again, a symbolic echo of the first three convocations on Yahweh’s annual schedule. Yahshua’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—which fulfilled those three prophetic “feasts”—gave us the hope of new life in Him, and prepared us to stand cleansed and upright in the presence of God. Sweet!
In a fascinating twist, the “tree” was even used as a prop in scripture to teach us about resurrection. Job was mulling over what he thought was his imminent demise, when he considered second-growth trees. “For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant….” Where I now live is a forested area that was once (probably half a century ago) logged over. Many of the trees have “double trunks,” that is, there are now two trees (or more) growing from single old root systems that were left behind when they cleared the land. So I know what Job was talking about. And it gives me hope.
At first glance, it seemed to Job that when man dies (unlike a tree’s potential) it’s all over but the worm feast: “But a man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake and a river wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep.” But as Job thought about it, another, more encouraging prospect occurred to him: perhaps we’re something like trees after all. “Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until Your wrath be past, that You would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer You. You would long for the work of Your hands.” (Job 14:7-15) Like God calling forth abundant new life from a ravaged, logged-over wasteland, we too (who are of a mind to listen to His call) can expect to “sprout” anew after death—not in the same bodies in which we died of course, but rather raised “in newness of life.” Someday, we’ll have bodies as fit for eternity as our present ones were suited to the temporal earth. It all depends on our roots. The Hebrew word Job used for “roots” is the versatile shoresh—“the underground part of a plant that anchors and nourishes the plant… the source, formally root, i.e., that which is the derivation of an object, physical or logical… the sole, i.e., the very bottom part of the foot that makes contact with the ground… a base, the portion of an elevated land mass which is below the ground, which anchors the mountain… or a family line, i.e., a kinship of successive generations.” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains)
A “root,” then, is that upon which something is based. For a believer, it’s a perfect metaphor for Yah, but there are those who base their lives on falsehood instead: “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from Yahweh our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:18-19) Moses’ warning was to Israel—not to turn away from Yahweh in order to serve something inferior (which, by definition, is anything else). Although the covenant Yahweh made with Israel was to be ratified by their observation of the Torah (which in turn was to be, as Isaiah put it, “a light to the gentiles”) we among the gentile nations who have learned to revere Yahweh through the life of Yahshua of Nazareth should heed Moses’ admonition as well. The false gods of our forefathers—gods of power, sex, money, pride, and superstitious fear—still beckon. And we, like Israel, will fall prey to them if we base our lives on falsehood rather than on our Messiah. Lest there should be any confusion (since our religious traditions can so easily blind us to our true spiritual status) the litmus test, as always, is the fruit we bear. If we’re yielding a harvest of “poisonous and bitter fruit”—dissention, rancor, fear, bondage, suspicion, and anger—we’d best check our “stubbornness of heart” meter.
In our section on “Serpents,” we encountered this passage from Isaiah, and sorted out some of the possible prophetic ramifications. “Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of you, that the rod that struck you is broken, for from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent. And the firstborn of the poor will graze, and the needy lie down in safety; but I will kill your root with famine, and your remnant it will slay.” (Isaiah 14:29-30) This time, I’d like to focus on the concept of “roots.” The source or basis of all the evil that Philistia would suffer was Satan himself—that is, the poor choices the Philistines made because they pursued the devil’s agenda over God’s. But then Yahweh says “I will kill your root with famine.” In other words, that upon which Philistia had based its culture—the knowledge, power, and greed of men—would, as Moses had described it, be “swept away, the moist and dry alike.” Despite the fact that “Philistine” has become an epithet for a crude, boorish person, the Philistines, and the “Sea Peoples” from whom they descended, had a rich and prosperous culture, as long as it lasted. They knew (as the Israelites did not) the secrets of smelting iron, and they were not only great seafarers, they were also a fearsome military presence on land, Israel’s most formidable enemy until the rise of Assyria. But they shared the Babylonian religious proclivities of the Canaanites, so their culture—rooted in Satan—was doomed.
In the days of King Hezekiah, Judah came within a whisker of suffering the same fate its northern neighbor Ephraim had—being swallowed whole by the Assyrians. But Yahweh promised to deliver Jerusalem: “And this shall be the sign for you [that the Assyrians wouldn’t take Jerusalem]: this year eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs of the same. Then in the third year sow and reap and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of Yahweh will do this.” (II Kings 19:29-31; cf. Isaiah 37:31) Out of twenty kings of Judah, only eight of them did what was right in the sight of Yahweh, and Hezekiah was one of them. But until his reforms, Judah had lost its bearings. It had been uprooted from its God through apostasy and disobedience. Here Yahweh is pledging to honor the turn toward the light that Hezekiah had made: the Assyrians would not be used as implements of God’s wrath against Jerusalem, as they had been against Samaria. Judah would, rather, be given a chance to once again establish roots in Yahweh, which would enable them to sprout branches upward, bearing good fruit with which to feed the world—ultimately Yahshua the Messiah.
The same prophet who delivered this good news to Hezekiah saw the nature of what would spring up through Judah’s roots, as tenuous as they were, in their God. Considering the glorious reigning “Son of David” they were expecting, Isaiah’s description must have left the Jews scratching their heads. “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:1-3) Huh? This doesn’t sound at all like the Savior/King of legend, ruling in undiminished glory upon the throne of David. Granted, it’s a whole lot easier to see in the shadow of Calvary: there were to be two advents of the Christ—a suffering servant atoning for the sins of mankind by offering Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb of God, followed (two millennia later, it would transpire) by the magnificent conqueror, the reigning King—“mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Why the dichotomy? One reason (among many, no doubt) is that at the time of Christ’s first advent, Israel, and indeed, the whole world, was “dry ground.” We were desperately in need of the restoration and cleansing that only Yahweh’s Spirit could provide. When Christ returns in glory, however, all men will have chosen either to receive this Spirit or reject it in favor of demonic indwelling. The “ground” (Hebrew: eretz, read: the earth or the land) will no longer be “dry.” It will have been washed clean, scrubbed vigorously with the bristle brush of Yahweh’s judgment. And it will be ripe for the restoration and refreshing of Yahshua’s Millennial Kingdom.
Again, it is Isaiah who explains: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of Him shall the nations inquire, and His resting place shall be glorious. In that day the Lord [adonay] will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.” (Isaiah 11:10-11) The regathering of Israel back into the Land from the nations into which she had been scattered will be the first order of business for the “root of Jesse.” Who? Jesse was the father of King David. His “root” is that from which he came, the One upon whom Israel’s royal dynasty was based—ultimately, Yahweh Himself.
But note that “the nations,” that is, the gentiles (Hebrew: goyim), are also seen “inquiring” of Yahweh at this time, heeding the “signal” or banner (Hebrew: nes) that He has raised. If you track down the scriptural usage of this word nes— something lifted up, a standard, signal pole, or ensign—you’ll discover that it is metaphorical of the cross of Christ. The same word is used to describe the pole upon which the “serpent in the wilderness” (see Numbers 21:6-9) was raised, something that was in turn linked directly to the cross (see John 3:14). The nes is thus seen as a rallying point for a people who are recognized worldwide as being those who heed the message of the cross: “All inhabitants of the world and dwellers on the earth: when He [Yahweh] lifts up a banner [nes] on the mountains, you [the nation being described, which I believe to be the United States] see it; and when He blows a trumpet [a call to action, but probably also indicative of the rapture], you hear it.” (Isaiah 18:3) This is all the legacy of the “root of Jesse.”
In the closing passage of the Bible, the issue of precisely how this “root” will be manifested is addressed. Yahshua says, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing My recompense with Me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end…. I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Revelation 22:12-13, 16) Yahshua is both the root (the forebear, progenitor, and basis) of David, and his offspring, his physical descendant. The only way this could be possible (since you can’t be your own grandfather) is for Yahshua, who lived among us in history as a human being, to actually be God—Yahweh manifested in flesh.
Feel free to deny this if you wish. It’s your choice to make. But know this: belief is a package deal. You can’t logically receive “Jesus” as a great teacher and moralist and at the same time deny that He is God—the ultimate authority. You can’t expect God to answer your prayers for peace and prosperity without reference—and deference—to Yahshua of Nazareth. You can’t logically hope for God to act in this world in a manner inconsistent with His own word—something that reveals judgment, justice, and recompense. “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before Yahweh, for He comes to judge the earth. Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” (I Chronicles 16:33-34) When Yahweh comes to judge the earth, it will be in the persona of Yahshua. That’s good news if you’re His, and bad news if you’re not.
Nature—led by the trees, it seems—has never been unaware of the glory of Yahweh. But the time is coming when nature’s overt demonstration of its enthusiastic obeisance before Yahweh will be more obvious than usual. “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before Yahweh. For He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness.” (Psalm 96:11-13) In both of these passages, the exuberant celebration of nature is linked to Yahweh (as King Yahshua) coming to judge the earth. It’s not that heaven and earth, the sea, the grasses, and trees have all of a sudden become sentient beings with minds of their own. It is, rather, that all of nature will have cause to rejoice when Yahshua assumes the throne of David. Fallen man has been hard on the earth, and the events of the Tribulation will only serve to accelerate his drive toward the extinction of life. Between inadvertent pollution and the purposeful rape of the planet, we—especially in the last century or so—have given the marvelous mechanisms God instituted to keep our world pristine a run for their money. Don’t take this the wrong way: I’m not one of those “earth-first” types who, having decided that creation was all just an unending series of happy accidents that could never happen again, choose to worship “mother-earth” like some sort of pagan goddess. But as far back as Eden, it was man’s assigned responsibility to look after the earth, to care for it and for all of the things living upon it. So when God’s judgment is complete, when man’s greed and sloth and pride and stupidity have all been pruned back, and creation has once again been placed under the personal care of the Heavenly Vinedresser, then “all the trees of the forest [will] sing for joy before Yahweh.”
At the moment, it all may seem like a pipedream, of course. Yahweh has told us in a thousand little ways that He intends to let the world run without much overt “interference” on His part until the appointed time. So all we see as we look at the world today is “increasing entropy,” things getting worse and worse at an ever increasing pace. But this too was prophesied, so that we might have peace—albeit with a renewed sense of urgency—as we saw the end coming. We were told to expect wars, rumors of war, famine, diseases, and earthquakes, not to mention irrational hatred, betrayal, the rise of false prophets, an increase in lawlessness, deception, and a decrease in love. But remember what Yahweh said through His prophet Isaiah: “My word that goes out from My mouth shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for Yahweh, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:11-13) Under the coming reign of Yahshua, the earth will bud and bloom like the Garden of Eden, celebrating its own miraculous healing under the scepter of the Anointed King.
The idea of “bearing fruit” is very important to Yahweh. Even when judgment and warfare were in the picture, trees that bore fruit were to be considered sacrosanct. Consider this admonition to the Israelites as they were about to invade Canaan—under instructions to utterly destroy the pagans: “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down.” Fruit trees were to be considered a resource that the Israelites would need long after the Canaanites had been driven out. To waste them on timber for fortifications or weapons—or to cut them down out of spite for the enemy—was the wrong way to treat a gift from God. “Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?” In other words, don’t punish the trees for the sins of their owners. “Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) Only if the trees bore no edible fruit (or nuts, I surmise), were they approved for use as lumber.
Trees of every sort can be replaced and regrown, of course, even though it can take decades for a tree (like a person) to mature. So the issue of “bearing fruit” seems (to me, anyway) to be laden with symbolic significance. Could it be that God is telling us not to prevent the people we meet from bearing their fruit, even if it’s bad? As odd as it sounds, that might be the case: the pretense of goodness and godliness has led more people to hell than all the overt vice and violence in the world. Keeping rules is not remotely the same thing as having a relationship with God. Religious hypocrisy is a smokescreen that prevents honest searchers from perceiving the real love of Yahweh. So John reports the words of the angelic messenger concerning the end of days: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” (Revelation 22:11) Be yourself, he says, ’cause you’re not fooling anybody anyway.
So God says, “Don’t cut down the fruit trees of your enemy.” In a revealing vignette from Muslim lore, we read that after Muhammad had turned against the Jews of Yathrib (a.k.a. Medina), he went against his own former proclamation (which he had no doubt picked up from the Talmud, which is loosely based on the Torah) and in a fit of pique, cut down the palm trees of the Jewish Beni-Nadir tribe. In the Sunnah (Ibn Ishaq #437), we read, “After telling his Companions about the treachery which the Jews had meditated against him, the Apostle [Muhammad] ordered them to prepare for war and to march against them.” The Jews hadn’t actually done anything to harm Muhammad, you understand. They had merely considered his messianic claims and found them less than compelling. That was his idea of “treachery.” So, “Muhammad personally led his men against the Nadir and halted in their quarter. The Jews took refuge against him in their homes, so he ordered their date palms to be cut down and burnt. They shouted, ‘Muhammad, you have forbidden wonton destruction of property and have blamed those who perpetrated it. Why are you doing this?’” Why? Because he was a pathologically narcissistic, satanically inspired hypocrite. But realizing at last that he had proved himself to be a petty, inconsistent fool (which is presumably a bad thing if you’re a “prophet”), he “conveniently” conjured up a timely revelation from Allah: “The palm trees you cut down or left standing intact was by Allah’s dispensation so that He might disgrace the transgressors.” (Qur’an 59:5) In other words, the ends justify the means. Well, what’s a false god good for, if you can’t put words in his mouth?
What if someone’s “fruit” is good, but it’s making yours look evil in comparison? That very thing happened to the prophet Jeremiah. When the men of Anathoth (Jeremiah’s birthplace, a mile or two north of Jerusalem) got tired of his less than flattering prophecies, they plotted to kill him. But “Yahweh made it known to me and I knew; then You showed me their deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.’ But, O Yahweh of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see Your vengeance upon them, for to You have I committed my cause.” (Jeremiah 11:18-20) That’s one way to get rid of the fruit: cut down the tree that bears it. If Jerry’s critics had perceived the Torah’s symbolism, they would have realized that when Yahweh had forbidden “cutting down your enemy’s fruit trees,” He was speaking of people as well. Of course, if you’ve made Yahweh your enemy, you can’t expect to understand much at all. So in the end, who was “remembered no more?” Jeremiah’s words have been read all over the globe by multiplied millions of people. But Anathoth? I’m fairly conversant with Israel’s geography, but I had to look up Anathoth in a book.
Yahweh had “judged” between Jeremiah and the men of Anathoth—elevating the status of His prophet and diminishing the influence of his detractors. This is a recurring theme throughout scripture: God lifting up the humble and debasing the proud. Using trees as a metaphor, He stated His intentions: “And all the trees of the field shall know that I am Yahweh; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am Yahweh; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 17:24) He’s not speaking of the arboreal arts here; He’s using trees to teach us about His dealings with people and with nations. At the risk of over-analyzing this, note that there are two separate criteria in play. Whether a tree is “low” or “high” is a matter of God’s gifting. Yahweh makes some of us tall cedar trees, and others humble hyssop shrubs. It’s no sin to be “short” in some area—beauty, personal charisma, intelligence, wealth, etc. It’s how we use what we’ve been given that matters. God’s gifts are not an occasion for pride; they’re given to us as tools to be used in His service.
But “green” versus “dry” is a slightly different matter. This time, the “gift” is water—metaphorical of the source of life itself, and in the long run, spiritual life in Christ, as evidenced in the restoration and cleansing it provides in the life of the believer. If we resist the Holy Spirit, if we balk at restoration and refuse to be made clean, God reserves the right to withdraw the Spirit’s influence. He has done this in response to man’s bad choices as long as our race has walked the earth. But conversely, if we—thirsty shrubs languishing in the desert of sin—reach out our roots in search of the God we perceive is calling to us, He has promised to provide the cleansing and restoration we need to stand upright in His presence.
Israel at the time of Christ’s advent was “green wood.” They (many of them) were living in expectation of the coming Messiah: Anna, Simeon, and John the Baptist were but the tip of the iceberg of Israel’s prophetic anticipation. But when Israel’s rulers turned their backs—and their whips—on the Messiah, Yahweh removed His Spirit of protection from the nation. As He was bearing His cross toward Golgotha, Yahshua was heard saying, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood [xulon] is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28-31) The “wood” was dry enough in 70 AD, when the Romans under Titus sacked Jerusalem, and it was downright crispy when Emperor Hadrian came back to finish the job in 133.
Will Israel ever become “green wood” again? Yes, but only when they return to Yahweh and recognize His Messiah, Yahshua—the one known to Christians as Jesus Christ. Unless I am mistaken about a great many things, the day is not far off when this will happen in Israel: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” This will become glorious reality on the definitive Day of Atonement—the sixth of Yahweh’s seven holy convocations, preceding the commencement of Yahshua’s Millennial kingdom by just five days. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:3-6)
This isn’t the first time wood and water were connected in the context of judgment in the Bible. The first time, of course, was during the flood of Noah (see Genesis 6). The earth Noah knew was wiped clean and restored like a blank slate while he and his family were lifted to safety in a huge wooden boat built to Yahweh’s exacting specifications. The same combination of symbolic factors was seen several times during the ten plagues of Egypt. For instance, the first plague: “Thus says Yahweh, ‘By this you shall know that I am Yahweh: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile….’” The Nile was the Egyptians’ lifeline—the one thing they relied on more than anything else—in other words, its “god” in the most simplistic sense of the word. Each of the ten plagues dethroned one or another of Egypt’s pagan deities. In this case, Hapi (the “spirit of the Nile”) and Khnum (its “guardian”) were shown to be powerless. The plague didn’t stop with the water flowing in the great river. “And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood [’ets] and in vessels of stone.”’” (Exodus 7:17-19) “Vessels of wood” were (I’m guessing) mostly things like water troughs for animals and irrigation sluices—the point being that the ramifications of worshipping a false god like the waters of the Nile would not be restricted to men alone, but would affect every facet of Egypt’s national existence.
Trees and plants were once again targets of the seventh plague: “There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail.” (Exodus 9:24-26) The Egyptian “sky goddess” was called Nut. Either she was working for Yahweh (choke, cough) or she didn’t really exist. Either way, the plants and trees were decimated: the God of the Israelites had had just about enough of the fruit of Egyptian society. The Jews, who lived in Goshen, were spared (just as they had been from the flies, the disease killing the cattle, and the boils—and would soon be from the locusts, the darkness, and most significantly, the curse upon the firstborn).
Next on Yahweh’s divine “hit list” was the supposed protector of crops, Seth (or Set), and one of Egypt’s biggies, the “earth-mother” goddess of life itself—Isis. Neither one of them stood a chance against Yahweh’s armies of locusts: “The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever will be again. They covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened, and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:14-15) Once again, the trees and plants—the basis of everyone’s diet, whether animal or human, had been targeted. God wanted the Egyptians (and us) to understand that His provision is provisional: if we won’t acknowledge Him as the source of our life, He reserves the right to remove what He’s provided to sustain life.
The ninth plague—darkness—once again demonstrated Yahweh’s absolute control over the food supply, since the photosynthetic plants that comprise the base of the food chain derive their own sustenance from the sun. The Egyptian “god” toppled here was Ra—the sun god. Trees are again directly connected to judgment in the tenth and last plague—the death of the firstborn. Here, the blood of the Passover lamb was to be applied to the wooden doorposts and lintels of those who trusted Yahweh for their protection—a blatantly obvious dress rehearsal for the passion of the Messiah. Besides Pharaoh (who fancied himself a god) the Egyptian deity brought to its knees here was Osiris, the supposed giver of life. I find it fascinating that the last three (and most terrifying) plagues directly targeted the “gods” that correspond to the proto-trinity of ancient Babylon: Osiris is analogous to Nimrod, Isis to Semiramis, and Ra to Tammuz. One by one, they were destroyed by the One True God, Yahweh—which is not to say their worship didn’t persist in so many permutations you can’t even count ’em, even as it does to this day in the humanist veneration of power, sex, and money.
Remarkably, over the centuries, even the nation of Israel embraced this curse. In a scathing indictment of a nation who turned its back on its own history (pay attention, America) Yahweh instructed His prophet Jeremiah to write off Judah as a total loss: “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me, for I will not hear you.” What could be so horrible that God would declare His people to be beyond salvage, beyond prayer? They had embraced the very gods He had proven were insipid forgeries way back in Egypt. And as usual, we see trees and judgment in the same view: “Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven.” This “queen of heaven” is the same Isis who had been stripped bare and dethroned in Yahweh’s plague of locusts—the Asherah we saw so roundly condemned a few pages back, in Deuteronomy 12:2-3. Yahweh next points out that their idolatries don’t hurt Him one bit, but they bring shame and wrath on the ones who practice them. “And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke Me to anger. Is it I whom they provoke? declares Yahweh. Is it not themselves, to their own shame?” And notice what will bear the brunt of His anger: the trees, the “fruit of the ground.” “Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh: behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground. It will burn and not be quenched.” (Jeremiah 7:16-20) As I said, Yahweh’s provision is provisional—it depends upon our response to it.
Centuries after Judah had been exiled to the Babylon they seemed to like so much—and were then allowed to return to the Land to give it another try—John the Baptist expanded the thought. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Actually, Jeremiah had. All of the prophets had. But the religious elite weren’t exactly coming to John to escape from God’s wrath. By visiting the first prophet to arise in Israel in four hundred years, they were merely trying to earn popularity points among the populace, like a hopeful politician desperately trying to identify with the most respected guy around. (There’s a reason American presidents over half a century consulted with Billy Graham, and it’s not because they were repentant or receptive.) “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10, cf. Luke 3:7-9) Like a broken record, we see the trees—the producers of fruit—symbolically bearing the brunt of God’s judgment against us.
Jude too made it clear that “trees” are a metaphor for mankind’s “fruit-bearing” (whether good, bad, or non-existent) in this world: “But these people [earlier described as “ungodly men who turn the grace of God into licentiousness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ”] blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.” These three men serve as examples of the type, who turned their backs on God out of pride, greed, or ambition. “These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, looking after themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted.” (Jude 10-13) By late autumn, fruit trees are supposed to have hit their peak—loaded with luscious, sweet fruit, ripe for the picking. But these ungodly men of whom Jude speaks are described as “fruitless.” They’re good for nothing, like clouds that scud by overhead but give the earth no rain. Actually, they’re worse than nothing, for they hold out the promise of good but produce only disappointment. A lie is worse than silence.
If trees, then, are a metaphor for people subject to judgment (whether good or bad) the apocalyptic vision seen by John on Patmos does not bode well. Before the “great divide” known as the Tribulation gets underway, we see this vignette: “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.” In other words, God’s wrath is being held in check for the time being. He has a very good reason for doing this: “Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’ And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” (Revelation 7:1-4) These 144,000 Jews (or more properly, Israelites) will be made immune to the ravages of the times. They can’t be touched by the warfare, disease, famine, and natural disaster that will characterize these seven years. All 144,000 of them are seen (prophetically) greeting the returning Messiah on Mount Zion (see Revelation 14:1), a scene that will take place on the definitive Day of Atonement, only five days from the end of the Great Unpleasantness.
But between their “sealing” and their vindication, the whole earth is in for an unprecedented trial: “The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” (Revelation 8:7) This, unless I miss my guess, indicates widespread thermonuclear warfare. (What, did you think fallen man could build weapons like that and not use them?) A dozen separate prophetic factors force me to the conclusion that eretz Israel will never be nuked. (I wish I could report similar prophetic clues concerning America’s deliverance, but I can’t.) Logic dictates that one of the reasons all 144,000 will make it alive until the end of the Tribulation is that they will all have emigrated to Israel before the shooting starts. A nuclear weapon, after all, is quite indiscriminant. The “trees being burned up” here are literal, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s also a symbolic component to this. If we think in terms of “bearing fruit,” could this mean that mankind’s ability to do right or wrong—as individuals—will be severely curtailed at this time? Daniel reports that the power of the holy people shall be “completely shattered.” I have a feeling that they won’t be alone.
The shoe is on the other foot (so to speak) during the fifth trumpet judgment: “The fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” (Revelation 9:1-4) This time, the trees are specifically exempted from wrath. But then again, these aren’t ordinary locusts—devourers of vegetation. These beasties are demonic, and their target—for five long months—will be those who are not sealed by God against their onslaught, and especially (I surmise) the recipients of the mark of the beast.
Does our observation still hold that a “tree” metaphorically speaks of the ability or potential of mankind to bear spiritual fruit? At this point in the Tribulation (well past the halfway point, past the abomination of desolation and the commencement of the Antichrist’s ironfisted rule), few if any will be left “undecided” between Yahweh and Satan: most of the world will have made their choice (and most, sadly, will have chosen Satan’s man). So the fruit one bears—whether good or evil—will be especially revealing. If we take Matthew 25:31-46 (the prophecy of the separation of the “sheep” from the “goats” at the Tribulation’s conclusion) as our cue, “good fruit” will consist of meeting the needs of Christ by meeting the needs of His “brethren” (Jews, and perhaps also other believers), while bad fruit (or no fruit) will be defined as refusing to do so—a circumstance that will earn the goats a home in hell.
Judgment in Biblical parlance doesn’t necessarily mean condemnation. Technically, both in Hebrew and Greek, it denotes separation of good from evil, a judicial decision based on evidence and testimony—the declaration of what it means to be “holy.” So even though for most of humanity (those who choose to walk the broad path that leads to destruction—see Matthew 7:13), God’s “judgment” will result in a sentence of separation from Yahweh, it can result in blessing. The Psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of Yahweh, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” (Psalm 1:1-3) A good, healthy tree, he says, bears fruit when the time is right. And what makes this tree—the blessed man—healthy? Abundant water (read: the work of the Holy Spirit) and the Torah: Yahweh’s symbolic, systematic unveiling of the mission of His Messiah.
Solomon spoke often of this same sort of “tree of life.” “ [Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” (Proverbs 3:18) “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise.” (Proverbs 11:30) “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4) We’re used to being encouraged to “do good.” But stating this as negative proposition may help to bring it into focus: folly, wickedness, and an unbridled tongue are a tree of death whose fruit is poisonous. Just as the “tree of life” symbolically yields good fruit, this bitter harvest is the rightful “food” of those who prefer the counsel of the ungodly, the path of sinners, and the position of those who ridicule God’s truth.
And who knows? Perhaps the “tree of life” isn’t entirely symbolic. There could well be a literal component as well. I don’t suppose it really matters. But Christ’s word to the church at Ephesus included this promise: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree [xulon] of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7) And later in the same vision, John saw the tree of life looming large in the garden of the redeemed: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree [xulon] of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations…. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates…. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:1-2, 14, 18-19) In the end, the tree of life is cross of Christ. Its leaves are the word of God; and its fruit is love.