Trees play an essential part in protecting our environment and meeting many of our practical needs. They produce large amounts of oxygen on a daily basis, and constantly absorb harmful carbon dioxides. They help to control pollution, provide a stabilizing influence against soil erosion, as well as playing a major role in water management by reducing the risk of flooding and the impact of drought. Trees provide a habitat for wildlife and supply human beings with food and wood for basic uses. In other words, trees symbolize life, especially longevity, as reflected in evergreens, i.e., undying life. They have a certain therapeutic value, and, according to the Royal Parks Foundation, research shows that within minutes of being surrounded by trees and green space, your blood pressure will drop, your heart rate will slow and your stress levels will come down!1 So when we come to the Hebrew noun for tree, ‘Es, which occurs some 300 times in the Old Testament, the Bible provides us with a number of contexts where many of these positive qualities are mirrored, and imparts useful spiritual lessons. With so many references to trees in the Old Testament, however, this short paper will only merely touch the hem of the garment!
In Genesis chapter 2 verse 9, we are introduced first to ‘the tree of life’ and ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. These formed part of the many trees created by God from the ground in the garden of Eden, which the text states, ‘was pleasant to look at and good for food’. It was ‘the tree of life’ with its life-giving efficacy that becomes no longer within the reach of humanity after the fall, thus preventing man from obtaining immortality, Gen. 3. 22. It is later through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ that life and immortality are brought to light again, 2 Tim. 1. 10, and is a reward for those who finally overcome, Rev. 2. 7. In the New Jerusalem, the tree of life features prominently once again as it provides a variety of fruit on a monthly basis, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations, 22. 3. Some suggest that the tree of life is symbolized by the vertical shaft on the golden lampstand with its three branches on each side and its cups ‘shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms’, Exod. 25. 34.2 These pictures of trees are symbolic of the life of God Himself, as evident in many Old Testament texts. For example, in Psalm 1 verse 3 the ideal righteous individual is compared to an evergreen tree that displays both uninterrupted fruitfulness and arboreal majesty.
A tree analogy provides us with an evocative picture of love in the Song of Solomon chapter 2 verse 3. In Proverbs chapter 3 verse 18, wisdom, which is personified, is likened to a ‘tree of life’, a metaphor for the source of life and health. This was the same wisdom that was used by God in the creation of the world, 3. 19. Other references to a ‘tree of life’ are found elsewhere in Proverbs, but the motif is changed in each context, i.e., in chapter 11 verse 30, the fruit of a tree of life is likened to righteousness, in chapter 13 verse 12, all the fulfilled desires linked with hope is likened to a tree of life, and in chapter 15 verse 4, healing speech is likened to a tree of life. The prophet Isaiah in chapter 65 verse 22 uses the word ‘Es to show how the longevity of a tree is illustrative of the longevity of the nation of Israel. Ezekiel, in chapter 31 of his prophecy, uses the imagery of a cedar tree to teach Pharaoh, king of Egypt, a salutary lesson from history on the dangers of being an arrogant ruler. Even though the cedar tree – a metaphor for the Assyrian empire – was unrivalled in its beauty and stature, it was nonetheless ultimately handed over by God to another ruler, who proceeded to cut the tree down, 31. 11-18. Notice the similarity of this metaphor to Nebuchadnezzar’s tree dream in Daniel chapter 4. The difference, of course, is that Nebuchadnezzar is restored again, because he recognizes the sovereignty of God who rules with equity and justice over the nations and abases the proud, Dan. 4. 34-35, 37. Contrast these metaphors with the tree imagery used in Isaiah chapter 11 verse 1 of the ideal Davidic king who is depicted as a ‘shoot’ and a ‘branch’. This ruler will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness, Jer. 23. 5-6, and bring about peace and prosperity for His people, Ps. 72. 2-3.
Trees are often associated in the Old Testament with the presence of God, as in Genesis chapter 12 verses 6-7 where Abram passes through the land and comes to the oak of Moreh.3 It is here that God appears to him, and promises that the land would be given to his offspring, Gen. 12. 7. When Joshua ratifies the covenant at Schechem he places a memorial stone at the foot of an oak tree, which was literally, ‘in the sacred precinct of the Lord’, Josh. 24. 26b. But trees or groves were also associated with idolatry, and vehemently denounced by God, especially through the prophet Isaiah who chastised Israel for their desire to worship at such places, Isa. 1. 29-30.4
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew word ‘Es is chiefly translated by the Greek word eulon, and occurs at least twenty times in the New Testament. In its ordinary sense, eulon simply refers to a tree or to wood in general, i.e., anything derived from wood. In the papyri and other non-literary sources, eulon was used to describe ‘wood imported from abroad’ and, interestingly, ‘a log of wood used as a battering-ram’.5 The New Testament use of the word is both general and metaphorical. It refers to clubs made of wood in Mark chapter 14 verses 43 and 48, to a moist or green tree in Luke chapter 23 verse 31,6 and to stocks in Acts chapter 16 verse 24. Figuratively, Paul uses wood as an example of the sort of combustible building material that may not survive the critical judgement of God when a believer’s service is finally reviewed, 1 Cor. 3. 12. Jude uses the word to characterize those who are ungodly, describing them as ‘fruitless trees in late autumn’, 12 ESV. But it is the use of eulon as a means of describing the cross that makes the word so important in the New Testament. Paul picks up the wording of Deuteronomy chapter 21 verses 22-23 (LXX) in Galatians chapter 3 verse 13 to explain how Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law. By being hanged ‘on a tree’, Christ became our curse, just as the death He died was rightfully our death. Peter identifies Israel’s part in this event when he states, ‘whom you killed by hanging him on a tree’, Acts 5. 30 ESV, cp. 10. 39. He reinforces this later when referring to the vicarious death of Christ for us when he states, ‘Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree’, 1 Pet. 2. 24. No wonder Paul made the cross of Christ the solitary ground of his boasting, Gal. 6. 14. May we too learn to evaluate everything in the light of the Man who was hung upon a tree for us!
www.supporttheroyalparks.org – Accessed on 21 May 2016.
Leland Ryken, Tremper Longman (ed.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, InterVarsity Press, 1998, pg. 890.
William P. Brown (Seeing the Psalms – A Theology of Metaphor, pg. 71) suggests that ‘the name of this oak literally means “teacher” or perhaps “oracle giver” … It is also referred to as the “diviners” oak’, Judg. 9. 37 (cf. v. 6)’.
Alec Motyer (The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 51-52) states that in this context, “Oaks and gardens” are the symbols of the life of “nature” and of the fertility gods’.
J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament , Hendrickson, 1997, pg. 435.
Although this is a literal reference to a tree, the argument in this context is figurative in the sense that if God did not spare His Son from judgement (green wood), then how much more severe will the judgement be on the nation of Israel or anyone who is impenitent (dry wood).
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