Rev. Langerak is pastor of the Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
We might be tempted to disparage them after the leafy mess they make each fall, but the tree is a wonder to behold. It is prominent in the history of salvation. They are among the first living things created (Gen. 1:11-12). Paradise the first featured two trees; eating from one sustained human life, and eating from the other took it (Gen. 2:9-17). The guilty in Eden tried to hide their shame with trees (Gen. 3:7-8). Christ redeemed mankind from a tree (I Pet. 2:24) and is “an apple tree among the trees of the wood,” where we find “great delight” and “sweet” blessings (Song 2:3). The new creation is pictured as the radical transformation of desert into an oasis of trees (Is. 41:19). And those entering this Paradise the second will eat from a new tree of life with therapeutic leaves and twelve kinds of fruit (Rev. 2:14ff.).
Trees are the first living thing said to produce seed after its kind (Gen. 1:11). Scripture mentions over 20 such kind: fruit-bearers such as almond, chestnut, and pomegranate (apple); evergreens such as cypress (gopher), myrtle, and thyine; and deciduous such as oak, shittim (acacia), and willow. God obviously intended individual characteristics of each species to represent different spiritual realities in the kingdom. And I suppose this explains why Solomon studied and “spake of trees” (I Kings 4:33). Covenant children are “olive plants in strength and beauty, full of hope and promise sweet” (Psalter 360). The righteous flourish like the palm, live long like the massive cedars (Ps. 92:12), and are cultivated as olives in God’s house (Ps. 52:8). The righteous are “like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (Ps. 1:3). The ungodly are not so. They are like the fruitless and invasive green bay tree (Ps. 37:35).
In general, trees represent God’s providential provision of the basic necessities of life. They are a symbol of vitality, rest, strength, and permanence. The tree provides shelter for man (Gen. 18:4) and beast (Ezek. 17:23). Firs and cedars provided homes for kings and God (I Kings 7:1ff.). Deborah judged from under a palm (Jud. 4:5). Saul tarried under a pomegranate during battle (I Sam. 14:2), and lived under a tree while David hid in a forest (I Sam. 22:5). Saul and Jonathan were buried under a tree (I Sam. 31:13), as was Deborah, Rebeka’s nurse (Gen. 35:8). Elijah prayed for death while under a juniper (I Kings 19:4). Jesus called a disciple from under a fig (John 1:48). To see Christ, Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore (Luke 19:4). And during Solomon’s reign, every man dwelt safely under his own fig tree (I Kings 4:25), a figure of the prosperous life God’s people will enjoy in the new creation (Zech. 3:10).
God intended the tree to provide life (Gen. 1:19). Israel was forbidden to cut down trees while laying siege to an enemy because they were “man’s life” (Deut. 20:19). They link man to the creation by transforming the non-living into food. This explains why the ungodly often serve trees more than the Creator (Rom. 1:25; Is. 44:14) and why Israel took to worshiping idols under every green tree (I Kings 14:23). But trees of themselves are not grace. The wicked “shall be broken as a tree” (Job 24:20). The King of Ai, Pharaoh’s baker, Absalom, and traitors Bigthan, Teresh, and Judas were all hanged on trees, a harbinger of the wicked’s doom and a sign of how cursed Christ really was when nailed to His own tree (Gal. 3:13).
This life-giving purpose explains the prominence of fruit-bearing trees in Scripture. Fruit represents the good works the elect produce by the life of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Good trees do not bring forth corrupt fruit, nor corrupt trees good fruit (Luke 6:43). Unfruitful trees in God’s orchard are cursed (Mark 22:21), cut down, and burned (Luke 13:7-9). Olives especially represent us because their fruit is “fatness wherewith God and man are honored” (Jud. 9:9), and they must be loved to produce fruit, but beaten to release it for the life of others (Deut. 24:20). The fruit of trees represents the fact that good works in turn bring life to the people of God by grace. This is why “the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Prov. 11:30). A wholesome tongue is “a tree of life” (Prov. 15:4). Wisdom is “a tree of life” (Prov. 3:18). And certain hope “is a tree of life” (Prov. 13:12). Behold the tree and praise God.