3.3.5 Olive: The Source of the Spirit
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.5
Olive: The Source of the Spirit
We have already established (in chapter 1 of this volume) that olive oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit in scripture. Our key passage was this: “The angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, ‘What do you see?’ I said, ‘I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.’ And I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of Yahweh to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says Yahweh of hosts.’” (Zechariah 4:1-6) It is not my purpose here to plow over old ground, but to concentrate on the source of the oil (and thereby the Spirit symbol)—the olive tree itself.
The first mention of olive plants in the Bible occurs in the flood narrative. The rain had long since stopped, and the waters had receded a great deal. Forty days after Noah could see the tops of the mountains in the distance, he sent out a raven and a dove from the ark. The raven (a carrion bird) didn’t return, having found plenty of corpses floating in the mud to snack on. The dove, on the other hand, was a “clean” bird, and thus more fastidious about what she would eat. So we’re told, “But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth.” I should reiterate that the word translated “earth” here is eretz, so it doesn’t necessarily mean “the whole planet,” but could just as legitimately denote the area Noah could see outside the ark, which was evidently no longer floating freely, but was hung up like a barge on a sandbar. “So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” (Genesis 8:9-11)
This, of course, is where we get the odd idea that the “olive branch” signifies “peace.” It means nothing of the sort, except by a long and tortured reasoning process. Yes, the flood was “over.” But the “earth” that had witnessed it was a disaster area. Nothing had survived, except for those sheltered in the ark. Even the vegetation was buried under a sea of mud. It must have looked like another planet altogether, alien and forbidding, to Noah and his family. Peace? It was the kind of “peace” you feel when you stop hitting your thumb with a hammer. The olive branch was actually the first glimmer of hope that Noah received. It was his first clue that life—one of the most fundamental attributes of the God he served—would return to the earth. Yes, he had breeding pairs of all the animals Yahweh had sent to him aboard the ark, but if the plant life didn’t return, those animals wouldn’t last long. Olive trees, as it turns out, are not only hardy, they germinate quickly in less-than-hospitable environments. Feral olive trees grow like weeds in such hostile climes as South Australia.
So if we’re looking for a symbolic identity for the olive tree in scripture, we should look beyond a “peace” defined only by the absence of imminent, terrifying danger. Since olive oil—obtained from the fruit of this tree by crushing pressure—is so obviously indicative of the Holy Spirit (the manifestation of Yahweh made available to us through the passion of Yahshua the Messiah) then the tree itself must logically have something to do with the source of that Spirit. In John 3, you’ll recall, Yahshua taught Nicodemus that being born from above, born anew in Yahweh’s Holy Spirit, was what defined someone as “being alive” in the spiritual, eternal sense. So when the dove brought back the olive twig to Noah, the symbolic meaning (at least in hindsight) became clear. Remember first that birds represent the consequences of our choices; so the dove, as a clean bird, is analogous to our “good” choices, those made in alignment with Yahweh’s will. The dove brought nothing back to the ark until she could bring something that would be a blessing to the man who “walked with God.” What she brought back was “proof of life,” evidence that the Spirit of Yahweh still walked the earth, even if man did not.
The same fundamental contrast demonstrated by the raven and the dove—the evil choices of an unclean life vs. the good choices of a clean one—is mirrored a thousand times over in scripture. And not infrequently, we see the olive tree metaphor—the dove’s evidence of renewed life—being used to characterize the righteous. “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him [that is, in context, the mighty man who is evil, proud, and deceptive], saying, ‘See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!’” You can only “laugh at” someone (Hebrew sachaq—to mock, scoff, or make fun of someone, showing lack of concern, anger, or disrespect for him) if he is no longer threatening you. So this is a prophecy, something that will become reality only when Christ reigns upon the earth. That being said, our security against such people is spoken of in the present tense: “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank You forever, because You have done it. I will wait for Your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” (Psalm 52:6-9) If we dwell “in the house of God,” we will exhibit the characteristics of young olive trees: we will take root there, produce abundant fruit, and convey the Spirit who dwells within us to whomever we meet.
Whatever blessings we enjoy in this life are directly attributable to our relationship with Yahweh. “Blessed is everyone who fears Yahweh, who walks in His ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.” He’s not necessarily promising material prosperity here, you understand, only “blessing.” There is a difference, although the two things can and often do coexist. As usual, delving into the Hebrew helps us to understand. The word for “blessed” here is ’esher, a word meaning “happy,” derived from the verb ’ashar, meaning to walk straight, to make progress, to advance. (Blessings bestowed from God are always expressed with a different term—barak.) In other words, this “blessing” is not a boon received from Yahweh, but the natural result of one’s reverential walk before Him. The passage goes on to describe it: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house. Your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears Yahweh.” (Psalm 128:1-4) Comparing this to our previous passage, it appears that the “olive” doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Not only is the one who honors Yahweh “a green olive tree in the house of God,” but his children are apt to follow suit, at least as long as they gather at his table.
Literal olive trees were an important component of the blessing of the Promised Land. The Land to which Moses led Israel wasn’t a blank slate. It was already developed, planted, and cultivated (never mind the moral pollution of its inhabitants). So Moses admonished the people, “When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….” Israel was supposed to go into Canaan, eliminate its idolatrous population, and take it over as a going concern. This whole scenario is viewed with horror by the unbelieving world today: had God not said, “You shall not steal?” Does this mean that it’s okay for any nation to attack any other if they figure they’re strong enough to hold onto their winnings?
No, it doesn’t. Allow me to point out a few salient facts: (1) Yahweh created the earth, and everything in it; therefore, it is His to give to whomever He wants. (2) This particular piece of ground had been promised to Israel’s patriarch, Abraham, by God Himself (see Genesis 13:14-15) half a millennium before its current inhabitants were even born. (3) It is not “stealing” to evict people who are squatting on your land, even if they didn’t realize it was yours. (4) Since “the earth is Yahweh’s, and the fullness thereof,” we are all squatting on land that doesn’t belong to us, no matter how much we might have paid for it. God reserves the right to evict any of us, whenever He chooses. If you don’t believe me, try taking your house with you when you die. (5) The mandate to conquer Canaan through military means was a limited-time offer. Restrictions applied. For instance, there were seven distinct people groups who were to be evicted: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perrizites, Hivites, and the Jebusites (see Deuteronomy 7:1). There were a few others (e.g., the Kenites, Kadmonites, and Kennezites—see Genesis 15:19) whose land had been promised to Abraham, but who had become extinct as national entities by the time Joshua entered the land. Note that Israel had no mandate to exterminate such groups as the Philistines, the Midianites, or the Phoenicians (even if they were occupying land that had been bequeathed to Abraham). And they were under specific instructions not to touch the lands of the Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites. Furthermore, the boundaries of Israel’s tribal lands were laid out in excruciating detail in Numbers 34. So this wasn’t an open ended call for Jewish world conquest. Israel must leave that sort of thing to their Muslim neighbors, who are instructed by their scriptures to wage jihad on everybody, beginning with Jews and Christians.
But I digress. We were talking about olive trees, and how they were part of the gift of the Promised Land. Because the Land was Yahweh’s to bequeath to whomever He chose, Moses warned the nation: “It is Yahweh your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by His name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you, for Yahweh your God in your midst is a jealous God, lest the anger of Yahweh your God be kindled against you, and He destroy you from off the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 6:10-15) As Job noted, what God gives, He can also take away, insofar as doing so doesn’t violate His own promises. The world would do well to remember that ownership of the Land has been Israel’s for the past four thousand years, though its occupancy always depended on their obedience, not to mention Yahweh’s patience.
Thus if Israel’s olive trees are symbolically indicative of the source of Yahweh’s Spirit in their midst, it becomes clear that His Spirit has been largely unavailable to them (in any national sense) during all those long years when they were exiled from their Land. And now that they’re back, it behooves Israel to seek out Yahweh with fresh eyes and open hearts. The “olive trees” are still there. When God’s Spirit finally falls upon the nation of Israel, it will be here, within the Promised Land (see Ezekiel 37:12, 38:8, 39:22).
Bearing in mind that Israel is a symbolic microcosm of the whole human race, note that their instructions never changed: “So you shall keep the commandments of Yahweh your God by walking in His ways and by fearing Him. For Yahweh your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:6-10) The blessings available to Israel (not to mention the potential cursings) were national in character. If they—as a nation—would honor Yahweh and perform the ordinances prescribed in the Torah, they would enjoy temporal blessings: abundant food, water, and mineral resources.
Did Yahweh keep His promise? Yes. A generation later, we read of the state of the nation, now settled in the Land: “I gave you [past tense] a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat [present tense] the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant. Now therefore fear Yahweh and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” (Joshua 24:13-14) The admonition accompanying the announcement was virtually the same as before. First, God had said, “Honor Me by keeping My commandments and I will give you this good Land.” Now He was saying, “I’ve delivered this Land to you, so honor Me by keeping My commandments.”
I should reiterate that these ordinances were invariably symbolic (one way or another) of the life and mission of Yahshua the Messiah: it was Israel’s job to “act out” on the world’s stage what Yahweh was doing to reconcile the human race to Himself. So although gentiles living outside the Land weren’t required to perform the same precepts as Jews within its borders, they were supposed to observe the commandments of Yahweh. For instance, if the Jews were instructed to remove the yeast from their homes for a week every spring, the gentiles were supposed to recognize and embrace the fact that this was a picture of the complete removal of sin from their lives. Similar examples could be multiplied a thousand times over, of course. And just as Israel would enjoy literal, physical blessings if they performed the rites of the Torah, we gentiles would reap the corresponding symbolic rewards—no less real because of their metaphorical nature. So as Israel was promised “a land of olive trees,” we, by honoring their God and walking in His ways, would receive the analogous spiritual blessing—in this case, access to the source of the Holy Spirit: Yahweh Himself.
Let’s explore one specific example of how this works, one that encompasses our present subject, olive trees. Israelites were required by Torah law to make provision for the poor and disenfranchised—not by throwing money at them as they sat back doing nothing, but by providing an opportunity for gainful, honorable employment. Though they wouldn’t get rich, the poor would survive if they showed some initiative. Here’s the precept: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” (Exodus 23:10-11) The emphasis here is on the “Sabbath” aspect of loving your neighbor, but the core principle is that some of what might ordinarily have been considered the property of the landowner—specifically, the olives from his orchard—are to be left unharvested (by him, anyway) during the Sabbatical year, one year out of every seven. In a stunning repudiation of the hard-nosed views of later rabbis, it is suggested here that although the landowner wasn’t to do any harvesting during the Sabbatical year, the poor were to be invited in with open arms to gather for themselves what God had provided. Apparently, it’s not “work” to gather God’s bounty if the land upon which it grew belongs not to you, but to God or His servant.
Were the poor, then, supposed to starve for six years out of every seven? No. The principle of leaving something for the poor is repeated in Deuteronomy, but this time it’s stripped of its Sabbatical-year ramifications. “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that Yahweh your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) Get the picture? Israel’s landowners were not to run “lean and mean” agribusiness operations, even during the years between Sabbaths. They were not to “watch the bottom line.” Efficiency at the expense of altruism was forbidden. Rather, they were to purposely leave something out there for the poor to collect.
The benefit for the widows and orphans was obvious: they could glean what had been missed, earning a living without shame and without being “forced” by desperate straits to steal. But the landowner, and even his employees, got something out of the deal as well: peace of mind, freedom from the stress and pressure of feeling you had to squeeze every last penny out of one’s farm or orchard. It was Yahweh, after all, who had caused the olives to grow in the first place. So when they were ripe, you could go out and give your tree a good once over: whatever fell off was a blessing to you; and whatever didn’t was to be considered a blessing for the poor in your midst, those who were, according to God’s law, encouraged to come along later and gather the gleanings. Note that they weren’t given what the landowner or his workers had gathered. That would have been theft (no matter what the liberals say). But they were allowed, even encouraged, to take what the rightful owner had left behind—that is, what Yahweh had instructed him to leave behind.
Meanwhile, the gentiles were supposed to be able to look at God’s Torah precept and apply its driving principle to their own situations. Okay, so in Greece or Finland or Kansas, the poor didn’t know the “system,” that it was okay to go in and “follow the reapers.” But that didn’t mean that the farmers and business owners couldn’t apply the same mindset—inventing ways to provide gracious opportunities for the poor without robbing them of their dignity. It could be donating to local charities—such institutions as Goodwill and the Salvation Army are great examples of the principle. It could take the form of hiring more people than you really needed, giving work experience and a paycheck to those just starting out. It could be outsourcing certain parts of your manufacturing process to handicapped workshops (something by which several of my less-than-whole adopted children have benefitted in years past). Use your imagination. Just because we aren’t Jews living in Israel, it doesn’t mean we can’t follow the spirit of the Torah’s precept. The core truth of the whole thing is that we are to trust Yahweh to meet our needs, whether we’re rich or poor. And a peripheral principle we should glean from this is that “enough is enough.” That which is more than sufficient for our own needs ought to be given away—invested in God’s kingdom.
And what about the symbolic ramifications of being told not to continue “beating your trees” until you’ve harvested every last olive? If olive trees signify “the source of the Spirit,” then this might be taken as an admonition to relax and allow the Holy Spirit to work in whatever way, and at whatever pace, Yahweh deems appropriate. It’s not that we aren’t to “shake the tree” at all. Recourse to the Spirit’s leading through prayer should be our standard strategy, the first thing we do. But God is neither deaf nor stupid. Once we have made our request known, we need to trust Him to work His will in the situation. Paul, you’ll recall, asked three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be taken away before God gently reminded him that His grace was perfectly sufficient for him. Yes, we are to be persistent and consistent, but we’re also to be patient and trusting. There’s plenty of Spirit to go around. Relax and trust God to do His job. He’s really good at it.
Whether literal olive trees or figurative reminders of where the Spirit of God comes from, Yahweh makes it abundantly clear that access to this gift is contingent upon our reverence for Him and for His word. The scriptural record is peppered with prophetic “olive tree” references warning Israel (and through them, us) what would happen to our “olive trees” if we turned our backs on Yahweh. Even before they entered the Land, the olive trees they had yet to inherit were employed as an object lesson in the infamous “blessings and cursings” passage of Deuteronomy 28: “But if you will not obey the voice of Yahweh your God or be careful to do all his commandments and His statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 40) It’s not like the olive trees would all be cut down or anything, but if Israel failed to keep Yahweh’s commandments, they would—by their fruitlessness—mock Israel’s plight. And if they rejected Yahweh’s Spirit, the Spirit would in turn become unavailable to them. It’s kind of like the law of supply and demand in reverse. The more the Spirit of God is “in demand” in a nation, the more readily available it will become; but if no one values the Spirit anymore, it will become as rare as buggy whips at a NASCAR race.
The frustration latent in Moses’ admonition is echoed by the prophet Micah, writing at a time when Assyria was being prepared to chastise Israel for her sins. “The voice of Yahweh cries to the city—and it is sound wisdom to fear Your name: ‘Hear of the rod and of Him who appointed it….’ Therefore I strike you with a grievous blow, making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger within you. You shall put away, but not preserve, and what you preserve I will give to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap. You shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil. You shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.” (Micah 6:9, 13-15) Without Yahweh’s blessing—the direct result of His people’s obedience—Israel’s plans for prosperity would come to nothing. Their potential would be unrealized and their labor unrewarded.
A century later, Judah faced the same stark choice: repent or perish. (And don’t look now, but that’s the decision America is facing right now as well.) After seeing what had happened to their northern brothers, it should have been obvious that Yahweh was displeased with the sort of things they were doing. Their apostasy had become a foul stench in the nostrils of God, so He told His prophet, “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to Me in the time of their trouble.” It’s an old story: slam the door in Yahweh’s face once too often, and He’s apt to lock it from His side. “What right has My beloved in My house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult?...” The Torah provided a broad range of animal sacrifices designed to demonstrate what Yahweh (through Yahshua) would do to remove from us the penalty of our sins, cover our trespasses, and atone for our lapses in judgment, behavior, or performance. But these sacrifices availed them nothing if they were performed as mere dead ritual, with no genuine contrition—which is precisely what Judah was doing.
“Yahweh once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit.’ But with the roar of a great tempest He will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. Yahweh of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking Me to anger by making offerings to Baal.” (Jeremiah 11:14-17) Here Israel is seen not as the possessor of Yahweh’s gift of olive trees, but as the trees themselves—that is, they were the ones whose job it was to be the conduit of Yahweh’s Spirit to the rest of the world. Yes, Yahshua was indeed sent “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (see Matthew 15:24) but it is now clear that He was mostly sent through them—to us.
God’s discipline is always designed to encourage us to repent, to turn around and go in a direction that’s different from our present, disastrous course. And God’s prophets said as much—over and over again. “I struck you with blight and mildew. Your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured. Yet you did not return to Me, declares Yahweh.” (Amos 4:9) It would be tempting to castigate Israel for being so tone deaf to Yahweh’s propensity to withhold His blessings in times of widespread apostasy. But if we look at our own society—even within the church—we see the same sort of moral inertia. We look at the disasters that plague our world—fires, floods, droughts, recording breaking heat or cold, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, ever more virulent pestilence upon man, beast, and crops, and even man-caused disasters—and we all-too-often forget that it doesn’t have to be this way. Yahweh would much prefer to be pouring out His blessing on mankind, and sheltering us from harm. I realize it’s politically incorrect to say so, but when such disasters happen to us, we must not assume that there is no element of divine judgment involved—calculated to awaken us and lead us to repentance. Remember: in Israel’s case, Yahweh flatly declared: “I struck you.” Christ’s coming Millennial kingdom will demonstrate what kind of benign world we could have lived in if we—and I mean all of us—had honored Yahweh all along.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we should “blame God” for all of the bad stuff that happens to us. Yahweh may allow such things, to encourage our repentance, but the blame is never His—it’s ours. Sure, there are guilty parties to blame for some of the disaster we see happening about us. But bad weather? The fault is not as the secular humanist elite would have you believe: weather anomalies are not the result of “global warming” or “climate change” brought about by overconsumption on the part of folks who have achieved a certain “unhealthy” level of prosperity. If you follow the money, you’ll soon discover that there is a hidden financial objective among those who are pushing the “green agenda.” There will be vast fortunes to be made if they can just get the world to buy into the idea that carbon emissions are the root of all evil. (Meanwhile, sunspot cycles—a phenomenon that has been going on for millions of years—are ignored because the global elite haven’t figured out how to make a profit on them.)
And what about “man-caused disasters” like wars, terrorist attacks, moral decay, and civil disorder? These same elite overlords would have you believe that (1) fundamentalist Muslims should be given what they want because they’re so “peace loving;” that (2) productive (or merely blessed) people should not be allowed to keep their wealth, but it should be “redistributed” equally among the masses, deserving or not; that (3) democracy should be imposed on everyone, no matter how many people have to be killed in order to achieve it; and that (4) a “woman’s right to choose” outweighs a child’s right to life. And the list could go on ad infinitum—excuse my soapbox rant. My point is that all of these theories are wrong: the evils that befall us in this world are the direct result of mankind’s own sinful nature, our enmity with God, and our unwillingness to repent. Things would be radically different if the whole world honored Yahweh. Or, should I say, things will be radically different when the whole world bows before Yahweh’s Anointed One—the Messiah, King Yahshua. Alas, the atheistic secular humanists won’t survive to see it.
That’s the question the “olive tree” places before us: what is the source of our spirit? What is the nature of the “anointing” of whoever (or whatever) it is that we follow in this world? In case you haven’t noticed, most people in this world choose to serve “kings” other then Yahshua. Their “anointed rulers” are—by definition—lesser creatures, not bad (necessarily), but inferior to Yahweh’s Messiah nevertheless. Some people see “salvation” in one political candidate or another. Some bow before their lifestyles, their pleasures, their toys, or even their perversions. Some revere their socio-political mindset, presuming that if everyone agreed with them, the world would straighten itself out (and note that I didn’t specify any particular philosophy or political stance, right or left, conservative or liberal: even the best of human schemes are incapable of overcoming the negative forces imposed upon us by our own fallen natures).
This psychological need for a “king” to rule over us is nothing new. It is the inevitable result of the fall of man, a condition that left Adam—and all of us since then—with the capacity for the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but bereft of it—until we choose to be “born from above.” Scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal nailed it in 1670 in his book Pensées (Thoughts): “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” If we ignore Yahweh’s Messiah, we will inevitably seek out something else—something inferior—to “anoint” as the king of our lives.
At the end of the age of the Judges, Israel (having de facto rejected Yahweh as their king) fell into this very trap, demanding of their judge and prophet, Samuel, that he appoint a king over them. He did so (under Yahweh’s disgusted direction) but not before he warned them what it would cost them: “So Samuel told all the words of Yahweh to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants….” From the symbolic point of view, this entails more than the obvious—that the king will rob you blind in the interests of “the greater good” or “national security,” defined in the end as “whatever benefits him.” Beyond that, “your olive orchards being taken from you and given to his servants” speaks of the source of anointing oil being removed from your control and put into his. That is, a king—anyone or anything you put in charge of your life—will rob you, to some extent, of your ability to determine your own spiritual destiny. False gods and politicians are alike: all they want is more—more of your authority, your wealth, and your liberty. They apparently can’t help themselves. Samuel’s point was well taken: it’s foolish to willingly give up control over your own olive orchard.
He continues with the bad news: “He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but Yahweh will not answer you in that day.” (I Samuel 8:10-18) A tenth? Most later generations living under “kings” of any description would kill to get off that easily. Yes, we have become the “slaves” of our governments, whether we know it or not. I don’t want to rub salt in the wound, but I must draw attention to the contrast Samuel was presenting. Under Yahweh’s direct rule, they had no king. They were personally—as well as nationally —responsible to observe God’s instructions, the Torah. No man ruled over them. Yes, there were Levites and a priesthood, but they held no civil power. The Torah had no enforcement provision other than the people’s responsibility to obey Yahweh. There was no governmental infrastructure, no standing army, no police force, no prisons, no bureaucracy, no state-supported palaces, and no diplomatic corps. Whatever “leaders” arose did so by virtue of their demonstrable wisdom, ability, and experience: “leadership” was defined as service rendered, not status attained.
And what about a welfare system? It did exist under the Torah, for people did occasionally fall upon hard times. It was a three part system: (1) The poor could, as we have seen, follow behind the reapers, gleaning what they left behind. (2) The tithe not only supported the landless Levites, but also went (under Levitical administration) toward the relief of the disadvantaged in Israel. And (3) there was a system of “contract labor” in which a person could sell his services to the highest bidder for up to seven years in order to pay his debts. Such a “bondservant” was protected from abuse under Torah law. He was not a slave: his servitude lasted only until the sabbatical year release, or until Jubilee, and his wages—paid in advance—were based on how much time was left until the end of the Sabbatical cycle. And after his “time” was up, his master was required to stake him—providing whatever was necessary to give him a fresh start in freedom and honor (thereby breaking the cycle of dependency and malaise that perpetual slavery would have fostered). Nobody in Israel sat around watching TV drinking beer waiting for the welfare check and food stamps to arrive.
But I’m digressing again. Sorry. We were talking about olive trees, and how they serve as a metaphor for the source of the oil of anointing—whether spiritual or temporal. A few dozen pages back, we studied a parable told by one of the sons of Gideon using trees to illustrate the concept of leadership in Israel. One by one, the trees passed on the job (since sovereignty belonged to Yahweh alone) until the worthless bramble stepped up and seized the scepter. The first tree on the list was the olive tree: “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods [elohim] and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:8-9) The olive tree readily admitted that he had an important job to do, but it wasn’t to rule over the other trees—it was to provide the oil with which men are anointed for service. Note: the ESV’s rendering of “gods” should be “God” (with a capital G). The word used is indeed plural (the -im ending), but in Hebrew this also indicates an emphatic form. Elohim is the generic term for God or true deity—Yahweh’s “job description.” The point is that not only are human kings and priests anointed with oil, but such anointing is also the very definition of the coming king, who was to be both God and man (Isaiah 9:6)—the promised Messiah, the Anointed One.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Messiah is Yahweh’s Anointed One, it is, in a sense, up to us to anoint Him (or not) to be king of our individual lives. That is, if we consider Yahshua to be our Sovereign Lord, it is our responsibility to obey Him. Of course, the choice of whether or not to do so is entirely up to us, but we can’t logically presume to reap the benefits of being a citizen in the kingdom of God if we refuse to do what God says. It may seem odd in the extreme to picture people as the source of God’s Spirit in this world, but in a way, that’s precisely what happens. It’s an artifact of the Great Commission: folks typically won’t meet Yahweh unless His followers introduce them to Him. Their souls will likely never have an opportunity to be indwelled with Yahweh’s life-giving Spirit if we haven’t let His light shine in our own lives.
Doubtless the ultimate example of “olive trees” providing evidence of the Spirit through the testimony of men is hinted at in this passage from Zechariah—the continuation of the very first scripture I quoted in this subject, where we learned of the symbolic connection between olive oil and the Spirit of Yahweh. We find Zechariah chatting with an angel: “Then I said to him, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’ And a second time I answered and said to him, ‘What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil is poured out?’ He said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the lord of the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:11-14)
I’m sure Zechariah was thinking, “Well, I’m certainly glad we got that cleared up.” This esoteric prophecy still wouldn’t make much sense until John fleshed it out in the Book of Revelation—but even then, you have to stay on your toes. As an angel was showing John a vision of the rebuilt Tribulation temple (the one in which the Antichrist will declare himself to be god—II Thessalonians 2:4), he suddenly switched gears: “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” That’s three and a half prophetic years (or “times”), coinciding for the most part with the second half of the Tribulation—the Great Tribulation. The angel then identifies them: “These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the lord of the earth….”
First, who is “the lord of the (whole) earth,” a phrase used in both Zechariah and Revelation? In the Hebrew, it’s adon, a noun meaning lord, master, or owner—one who exercises control. (When Yahweh is called “Lord” in the original Hebrew texts, however, the word used is invariably adonay—the emphatic form—not adon.) In John’s Greek, the word is theos, which denotes anyone who’s in charge, up to and including God. In the ultimate sense, of course, the two witnesses “stand by” or “stand before” Yahweh—we all do that. But the word “before,” describing where the witnesses stand, is the Greek enopion, meaning “in the presence of, over against, or opposite.” It would not be incorrect to translate this as “standing against the ruler of the whole earth.” And who is that? At this particular point in time, it’s the Antichrist, the Beast, the son of perdition. These two witnesses (who I’m convinced are Elijah and Enoch—the only two men who ever passed from history without suffering physical death—yet) will be the ants at the Antichrist’s picnic, the ones who personally call down the plagues of the Great Tribulation that are then carried out by the angels of the seven bowl judgments upon the earth.
The Beast would stop them if he could, but he can’t: they’re sealed by God for the task at hand. “And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.” (Revelation 11:3-6) It is not my purpose here to explore what they’ll do, or how. But let us consider why. These two men are characterized as the two olive trees whose oil feeds golden seven-branched lampstand in Zechariah’s vision. Or to be more precise, they are the two branches of olive trees. Yahweh is the ultimate source of His Spirit, of course, but these two branches are seen as conduits through which that Spirit flows, illuminating the whole earth in these, the darkest of mankind’s days. John reports that the whole world will rejoice when they’re finally murdered by the Beast (i.e., when Yahweh has determined that their task has been accomplished, 1,260 days after they began). So it is apparent—even obvious—that these same people are aware of what they’ve been doing for the past three and a half years. The angel characterizes it as “prophesying.” There is a message attached to their pronouncement of plagues upon the earth: repent—or else. This is what the conduit of Yahweh’s Spirit to man will look like in the day of judgment.
Some will listen, but many will not. As always, it’ll boil down to a choice of whom you believe—whom you trust—Yahweh or our adversary. Satan and the Beast, like pitiful politicians running for office, will try to persuade people to ignore or discount what the two witnesses are saying, since they can’t prevent their message from being broadcast. Of course, when the plagues come about just as they predicted, the Antichrist’s lies will become increasingly hard to sell. But it has always been that way, ever since Adam and Eve’s debacle in the garden: we’re given a choice of whom to believe—Yahweh or Satan—and subsequent events reveal whether we chose well or poorly.
An example from history: at the height of Assyria’s power, having already hauled Israel’s northern kingdom off in chains, they attacked Judah and besieged Jerusalem, though God had promised to deliver the city. So the Assyrian commander/negotiator told them, “Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, Yahweh will deliver us.” (II Kings 18:31-32) That was a rather convincing sound bite, if you didn’t know the Living God. But you know the story: Yahweh slew the entire 185,000 man Assyrian siege force in a single night, in response to King Hezekiah’s unshakable faith.
But in the present context, let us more closely examine one of the Assyrians’ promises: “I [will] come and take you away to a land like your own land…a land of olive trees.” Symbolically, what Sennacherib’s Rabshekeh was saying to Hezekiah (though he doubtless didn’t realize it) was that “one spirit is as good as any other. You’ve got your olive trees here in Judea, but you can have other olive trees in the lands where we’ll resettle you. In other words, you have Yahweh to worship here, but where we’ll send you, you’ll have your pick of gods that are just as good—Bel, Marduk, Sin, Ishtar, Tiamat, Ashur, or any of a dozen more; take your pick. So you may as well give up.” There was just one slight problem: the Assyrians, so familiar with religion based on the worship of false gods, didn’t comprehend that the Jews were following (however imperfectly) the Real Thing, the genuine Creator of the Universe, Yahweh.
Alas, Judah would, as Ephraim had, eventually succumb to their own apostasy and idolatry. Good, faithful kings like Hezekiah were too few and far between to turn the nation around. But after the Babylonian captivity, the Jews were once again allowed (by the Persians, who had inherited the exiles) to return to Judea to rebuild their city and their temple. Centuries later, the advent of Yahshua the Messiah once again gave them a golden opportunity to choose wisely—and once again, they didn’t. Their exile this time wouldn’t be any measly seventy years: it would last from 135 AD (or count from the 70 AD sack of Jerusalem if you like) until 1948. Now that they’re back in the Land (albeit as spiritually dead corpses, not quite alive yet, as portrayed in Ezekiel 37:1-14) what is in Israel’s future?
It’s a bad news-good news story, with the bad news coming first. First, we read: “And in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low, and the fat of his flesh will grow lean. And it shall be as when the reaper gathers standing grain and his arm harvests the ears, and as when one gleans the ears of grain in the Valley of Rephaim. Gleanings will be left in it, as when an olive tree is beaten—two or three berries in the top of the highest bough, four or five on the branches of a fruit tree, declares Yahweh God of Israel.” (Isaiah 17:4-6) Israel is going to be knocked back to “remnant” mode—again. When will this happen? After all, it sounds a lot like the sort of thing that has happened to Jacob several times in the past. But the contextual key of the passage (verse 1) is the complete and utter destruction of Damascus—arguably the oldest continuously occupied city on the face of the earth: in other words, this hasn’t happened yet. The previous verse ties the bleak fate of Syria’s capital to the Tribulation of Israel: “The fortified cities of Israel will also be destroyed, and the power of Damascus will end. The few left in Aram [Syria] will share the fate of Israel’s departed glory,” says Yahweh Almighty.” (Isaiah 17:3 NLT)
Actually, it won’t just be Israel who’ll be reduced to the “gleanings” of its former population during the Last Days. Isaiah 24 speaks of Yahweh’s devastating wrath upon the entire earth. It predicts the indiscriminant destruction of its populace, without regard to class or privilege (vs. 1-2), the fact that the earth’s inhabitants have defiled it, so they are going to be “burned, with few men left” (vs. 2-6), and the total breakdown of civilization, with all of its blandishments and amusements (vs. 7-12). Then the prophet uses the same image we saw before, that of an olive tree being beaten to harvest its fruit: “For thus it shall be in the midst of the earth among the nations, as when an olive tree is beaten, as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is done….” Remember what we saw previously concerning the privilege of the poor in Israel to come through the olive orchards after the initial harvest, gathering what was left over? Perhaps I’m seeing something that isn’t really there, but could it be that the severity of the Tribulation’s trials will depend on how much this last generation left behind for the poor? It may be a scriptural stretch, but it seems to me to be a reasonable assumption that the resources available to those left behind to face the Tribulation’s music will be inversely proportional to the greed with which they “beat their olive trees” in the days before God’s wrath descended upon them. I believe we should all “harvest our crops” in this world as if we knew we’d have to live not on what we gathered, but on what we left over for the poor.
And symbolically? What can we glean from this? If the olive tree is the source of the oil—that is, the Spirit—then we (Yahweh’s children) should do what we can to leave a legacy of spiritual truth behind us, easily accessible to those “poor” people who will be left to fend for themselves in our raptured absence. Will the memory of what we did, who we loved, or how we walked in the world lead them toward God or away from Him after we’re gone?
Having delivered the bad news, Isaiah now abruptly shifts gears and proclaims the good news: “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy. Over the majesty of Yahweh they shout from the west. Therefore in the east give glory to Yahweh. In the coastlands of the sea, give glory to the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel.” (Isaiah 24:13-15) Who are “they?” They’re the remnant—of both Israel and the nations—those relatively few “olives” who were left in the tree after the beating of the Tribulation had removed those ripe for judgment. Why are they singing for joy? It’s because they, having given glory to Yahweh (albeit belatedly), have now witnessed His victory, His vindication: King Yahshua reigns! Once again, the survivors of the Tribulation—the first generation of mortal citizens of Christ’s earthly kingdom—are compared to what was left behind to feed the poor. Truly did Yahshua say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Because this remnant will not have been schooled in the scriptures (but rather had to discover their faith “in the saddle,” much as Abraham did), they might be compared to Nehemiah’s generation of returning exiles, discovering anew what their parents had forgotten about God’s word. “And they found it written in the Law that Yahweh had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.’” (Nehemiah 8:14-15) For Nehemiah’s generation, this rediscovery of the Feast of Tabernacles was a dress rehearsal (whether they knew it or not) for the Millennial kingdom of Christ. But for the Tribulation survivors, it will be the actual performance. The booths that Yahweh had asked everyone to live in for the week were symbolic of the central fact of the Kingdom: Yahweh, in the form of King Yahshua, was coming to “camp out” among men on the earth.
The branches of olive trees weren’t specified in the original Instructions, as we saw in our study of palm trees. But Nehemiah’s inclusion of olive branches (in place of “the boughs of leafy trees” and “willows of the brook,” both of which spoke of the mixed multitude that would populate the Kingdom) may get us to the same conclusion, using different imagery. That is, both Israel and the church are in view, separate in a way but at the same time unified, woven together into one, as the warp and woof of a tapestry are separate but inextricable—together forming something greater, stronger, and more beautiful than the sum of its parts.
The key to our understanding is Nehemiah’s mention of both cultivated and wild olive branches. If the Instructions concerning the Feast of Tabernacles meant nothing beyond simply obeying God’s orders, then Nehemiah’s propensity for playing fast and loose with Yahweh’s Law based on what he found practical or expedient might be considered, shall we say, ill advised. Sure, olive trees and myrtles would probably fall under the broad category “leafy trees,” but there are those today who would take him to task for not merely repeating Moses’ directive verbatim. I am not among them. I believe, rather, that Yahweh was, through His servant, giving us another chance to discover something important about His plan—by using different imagery. In truth, He does this all the time, presenting the same doctrine or prophetic principles different ways, using different symbols, through different prophets. I believe that’s what He’s doing here.
Granted, specifying both cultivated and wild olive branches for the booths of the festival is about as “inside” as it gets. But we have Paul to sort it out for us. He’s speaking here of how the gentiles relate to Israel in the kingdom of God. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” Paul, as a former Pharisee, was the unlikeliest possible choice for an “apostle to the gentiles,” which no doubt explains why Yahweh chose him for the task. Never let it be said that God doesn’t have a flair for irony. “For if their [that is, Israel’s] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” Paul (after his conversion, anyway) was heartsick that his beloved Israel had chosen to largely reject Yahshua’s Messianic credentials. The silver lining to that cloud was that the message could now be brought to the whole world. “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches….” You can’t understand half of what Paul said without factoring in that he was a Torah scholar. His imagery depends, as often as not, on thorough familiarity with the Law of Moses. His point here is that there is natural continuity from the source to the end result, from the cause to the effect.
So he enlists olive trees as exemplars: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you….” The olive tree, the source of Yahweh’s Spirit, is a living organism—or should I say, the living organism, the source of all life, Yahweh Himself. The “natural branches” growing from the trunk, deriving their nourishment from their roots in Yahweh, are, of course, Israel. But it doesn’t take a horticultural savant to recognize that the natural branches had dried up and stopped producing fruit. I see this sort of thing all the time in the woods surrounding my home: a living, solidly rooted tree with a dead branch or two. When the storms come along, guess which branches are most apt to break off.
If you were tending a grove of commercial olive trees, you’d do the same thing nature does in my woods: you’d examine the trees for unproductive limbs, and cut them off so they wouldn’t sap the strength of the whole tree. Then (if you were trying to improve the breed) you might graft in branches from different varieties of olive trees. These branches can’t survive on their own, of course, but if grafted in to the healthy trunk, they bear the potential for improved strains of olives—hopefully more pest resistant and productive than the natural branches had been. That, in a manner of speaking, is what God did with His kingdom: He cut off Israel and grafted in the gentiles—that is, the largely gentile church.
So Paul says, “Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” We gentiles need to keep several factors in mind. (1) Israel is the “natural” match for the trunk and roots; we may be compatible, but that’s not really the same thing. (2) We’re here in the Kingdom by invitation only: we didn’t grow here, but were artificially grafted in. (3) The whole process is somewhat experimental on the orchard-Master’s part. By being grafted in, we are not being given possession of the trunk, only an opportunity to become a conduit for its blessings. We may “take,” and we may not. It’s up to us. (4) Whether or not we are deemed compatible with the trunk and roots will be determined by one thing: the fruit we bear. In the end, we may turn out to be crabapple limbs instead of wild olive branches—in which case, we’ll bear no olives, no matter how skillfully the grafting was done.
Paul then rightly admonishes the gentile believers against pride: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you [if we fall into the same sort of apostasy Israel did]. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off….” We in the church are offered the same sort of “blessing or cursing” choice that Israel was in Deuteronomy 28—not as a single nation this time, since we are drawn from every tribe and people on earth—but as individual believers choosing a spiritual path. If we wish to experience His kindness, we should endeavor to bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But God is under no illusions. Some of us will invite His severity upon our heads instead. It’s a prophetic fait accompli. I am reminded of the sweeping differences between the seven churches to whom the epistles of Revelation 2 and 3 were addressed. Some (like Smyrna and Philadelphia) were given nothing but encouragement, but others (like Thyatira and Sardis) were pronounced terminally ill—as dead as a dry branch on an olive tree, ready to be snapped off and tossed into the fire.
Is Israel done, then? Having been broken off for their sins (providing an opportunity for the gentiles to prosper in their stead), are they beyond redemption? A thousand unmistakable prophecies make it clear that this is not the case. They will return to Yahweh—and embrace Yahshua His Messiah. Remember, Daniel’s chapter 9 prophecy for Israel still has one “week” yet to run, in which everlasting righteousness will be brought in, vision and prophecy will be sealed up, and the Most Holy will be anointed. So Paul’s analogy continues: “And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.” This re-grafting is essentially what is predicted for the definitive Day of Atonement: Israel will afflict their souls, respond to Yahweh, and receive their returning Messiah. “For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.” (Romans 11:13-14) From that day forward, and throughout Christ’s Millennial kingdom, the Spirit of Yahweh will flow through Israel to the entire world. The olive tree of humanity will have been restored to its intended state.
Or as Hosea puts it, “I will be like the dew to Israel. He shall blossom like the lily. He shall take root like the trees of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out. His beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. They shall return and dwell beneath My shadow.” (Hosea 14:5-7) That day is not far off. Today, they don’t know what they’ve been missing. Israel is yet a valley of dry bones. But they will soon stand on their feet, an exceedingly great army quickened by the breath—the Spirit— of Yahweh.
(First published 2014)