I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.
~ Joyce Kilmer, “Trees”
There are over 235 references to “tree” or “trees” in the Hebrew Scriptures that involve trees as poetry, metaphor, pagan worship, parables, rebukes from God, and as pictures of God’s restoration. The word translated as “wood,” when coming from a tree, is usually the same Hebrew word as tree, and there are at least 110 references using this word. God often uses the image of trees in his word to vividly illustrate his teachings, reprimands, and prophecies.
Wood was used for fire, worship, shelter, and commerce (J. I. Packer, M. C. Tenney, eds., Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1980], 256). God even shows a special regard for trees in Deuteronomy 20:19 when He forbade the Israelites from chopping down trees that bore fruit in time of war, “for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” (New American Standard Bible, hereafter referred to as NASB)
Looking at the earliest moments of man, we see that trees played a crucial role.
Two Trees in the Garden
The Hebrew Scriptures, in the story of creation, introduce us to two trees that play a role in man’s destiny and are woven as themes throughout the Bible. In Genesis 1:11, God creates vegetation, including trees; and Genesis 2:8 and 9 tells us that God planted a garden in which he caused trees to grow from the ground, “trees that were pleasing to the eye, and good for food” (New International Version, hereafter referred to as NIV). Trees were objects of beauty and a source of nourishment.
Genesis 2:9 also tells us that in the middle of the garden, called Eden, were two trees: the tree of life (Note from NET [New English Translation] Bible: “In light of Gen 3:22, the construction ‘tree of life’ should be interpreted to mean a tree that produces life-giving fruit (objective genitive) rather than a living tree (attributive genitive),” p. 7) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told Adam and Eve they could eat from any tree in the garden but they were forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, Adam and Eve failed this test, succumbing to the temptation of the serpent and desiring to be as God, as promised by the serpent, “knowing good and evil.” Having eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree, their eyes were opened and they knew evil first-hand, a consequence of disobeying God. Full of shame, they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. They had chosen to believe the forbidden fruit was good, rather than believe God.
It’s ironic that Adam and Eve used leaves from a tree as a covering, after having experienced separation from God through eating from a forbidden tree. Could the forbidden tree have been a fig tree, and could Adam and Eve have possibly used the leaves from that tree? In some Gnostic and Islamic traditions, the two famed trees in the Garden were the fig tree and the olive tree, with the olive tree being the tree of life, thus making the fig tree the tree of knowledge (Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them [NY: Meridian, Penguin Books USA Inc., 1994; Translation copyright, NY, NY: Facts on File Inc., 1992], 128; Jack Tresidder, Dictionary of Symbols [San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998; Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997], 148) and in many pagan beliefs, the tree of knowledge is a fig tree (J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols [London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1978], 66) .
There are three-dozen references to fig trees in the Bible (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1998], 890) and in most cases, their productiveness and ability to give needed shade in arid lands is a sign of God’s favor, peace, and prosperity (Ryken, 283; Packer, 254; Fred H. Wight, Manners & Customs of Bible Lands [Chicago: Moody Press, 1953], 202; Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, ed., R. K. Harrison. [Chicago: Moody Press, 1988], 1331. Also, see I Kings 4.25, Micah 4.4, and Zechariah 3.10).
Shaking a fig tree brings the ripe figs down easily (Nahum 3:12). The fruit and leaves come into bud together on fig trees, so if many leaves appear, fruit is expected to be there as well (Wight, 201). Since God made everything good and the trees in the Garden were perfect, one can assume that much fruit and many leaves were on them. Given the references to fig trees throughout the Bible, and Jesus’ curse on the fruitless fig tree in Mark 11:13, one can wonder, but not know, if perhaps the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree. But this is just speculation.
Disobeying God brought about man’s fall and his expulsion from the garden, “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” (Genesis 3:22b, English Standard Version, hereafter referred to as ESV), and God appointed cherubim to guard the tree of life. However, before this happened, immediately following God’s declaration of punishment on the man, woman, and serpent, verse 20 tells us that Adam calls the woman Eve, because she is the mother of “all the living” (NASB). Eve has not had any children at this point, nor has she been named until now.
Eve’s name is given in the biblical account at a point right between God’s verdict for man’s sin and man’s banishment from the Garden and the tree of life. This is interesting in light of the fact that it is the woman whom the serpent approached and tempted, it is the woman who first ate the fruit from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:6), and it is the woman who was named as the “mother of the living.” God’s promise of redemption is given to the couple in verse 15; it is through the woman’s “seed” that this redemption will come, thus making her name “mother of the living” especially noteworthy. Man has been banished from the Garden and lost access to the tree of life, but the woman, who played a major part in this eviction, will be the very vehicle for access back to life and fellowship with God through the future birth of the Redeemer. A tree of life is denied, but promise of future redemption will come through the mother of “all the living.”
Commentators see the tree of life as access to eternal life, and some believe that forbidding Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life after the fall was an act of mercy, because otherwise, they would have been had an endless physical life in a fallen world; also, this represents losing perfection through sin and having to experience death (Trent C. Butler, ed. Holman Bible Dictionary [Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991], 1367; Ryken, 889). Scripture compares a tree of life to wisdom in Proverbs 3:18, to the fruit of the righteous in Proverbs 11:30, to hope fulfilled in Proverbs 13:12, and to a soothing tongue in Proverbs 15:4, all showing that life comes from God and through a right relationship with him. Additionally, one scholar states that some believe that the golden lampstand in the Tabernacle in Exodus 25:34 represented the tree of life (Ryken, 890).
Tall Trees and Pride
A tall tree often represented leaders or nations who defied God. In several of these examples, a cedar is used to symbolize their pride and rebellion. Cedars can grow to 80 ft. high and have long, spreading branches; their timber is known for its beauty and strength (Packer, 255, 256). Cedar wood was used for David’s and Solomon’s houses, for idol worship (Isaiah 44:14-15), and for building ships (Ezekiel 27:5) (Ryken, 256).
In Ezekiel chapter 17, a parable is given to Israel about a cedar whose topmost branch is taken off and transplanted, but it withers. This is a rebuke to King Zedekiah of Judah, who had disobeyed God in turning to the Egyptians for deliverance from Babylon. God says that he himself will take off a top sprig and plant it on a mountain so that it will “bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar” (verse 23 ESV). God pronounces himself clearly in charge of all nations by declaring, “And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; 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 the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (verse 24 ESV).
God rebukes Egypt, seemingly comparing it to Assyria (one commentary argues that this passage has nothing to do with Assyria, but that the word usually translated as Assyria could be “ashshur” meaning “sherbin” instead of Assyria; see Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary [Chicago: Moody Press, 1990], 748) , as a towering, flourishing cedar, that “no tree in the garden of God” could equal in beauty, and the envy of all the trees in Eden (Ezekiel 31:1-9 ESV). But because of its pride, this tree was allowed by God to be cut down because no tree “by the water” will be allowed to grow so tall, instead being cast down to the “pit” and to Sheol, the abode of the dead (verses 14-17).
God concludes, “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword. ‘This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord GOD'” (verse 18 ESV). One commentary notes that the Egyptians, like the Jews, practiced circumcision (Wycliffe, 749), so telling them they would lie with the uncircumcised would have been an especially humiliating reproach.
Similar imagery is found in Daniel 4 where King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream or vision of a “tree in the midst of the earth” that “reached to heaven,” but is chopped down and its branches stripped, although a stump is left (verses 19-15, ESV). Daniel’s interpretation is that King Nebuchadnezzar will lose his mind and become like an animal for a period of time so that he and others will recognize that the Most High God rules “the realm of mankind” (verses 20-27 NASB). A point of interest is that in verse 4, the king states that before this vision he was “prospering” (ESV) or “flourishing” (NASB) in his palace. The word here for “prospering” and “flourishing” is the same word (Strong’s 7488, “luxuriant”) as found in Psalm 37:35, “I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil.”
This term for flourishing is sometimes rendered as “spreading” and is used in some translations in passages describing pagan worship among the “spreading trees.” Those who attempt to set themselves up against or above the one living God are as flourishing trees that endeavor to grow up towards heaven without acknowledging or subjecting themselves to God.
In addition to trees representing pride in certain cases, being hung on a tree is considered God’s curse (judgment) on sin (Genesis 40:18; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29; and Esther 2:23), and God’s condemnation is sometimes shown in descriptions of trees languishing, not yielding fruit, or drying up, as in Exodus 20:47 and Joel 1:7, 12.
King Nebuchadnezzar’s description of the tree in his vision as being in “the midst of the earth” (verse 10) is reminiscent of many pagan myths that tell of a “world tree” or “cosmic tree” in the middle of the earth that connects to the underworld with its roots, to the earth with its trunk, and to the heavens with its branches, and is seen as a pathway between earth and heaven (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, Trans. John Buchanan-Brown [London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1996], 1026, 1027; Cooper, 177; Tresidder, 208; Philip Carr-Gomm, The Druid Tradition [Rockport, MA: Element Books Inc., 1991], 108). Could this possibly be a reference in some way to the lost tree of life in Eden, universally preserved, though with the original meaning obscured, through pagan myths and legends?
Trees and Pagan Worship
Many references are made in the Hebrew Scriptures to the worship of false gods at the high places, under the trees, and to images made of wood. High places were usually on prominent hills or rises; at Gezer (Isaiah 57:5), firstborn babies were slaughtered and their bodies placed in jars near the high place (Unger, 569). The chief gods were associated with natural phenomena, such as storms, rain, the sun and moon, crops, the sky, the sea, and vegetation (Packer, 107).
Canaanite worship, which was very influential in the Near East, included crude sexual rites of fertility that incorporated “orgiastic nature worship” (Packer, 110; R. K. Harrison, Old Testament Times [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.; Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970], 167; Unger, 603). The chief god was El, whose consort, Asherat, was known to the Israelites as Asherah. Of Amorite origin, then Canaanite and possibly Phoenician, this goddess was worshipped at hill shrines and linked with fertility rituals (Michael Jordan, Encyclopedia of Gods, [NY, NY: Facts On File, Inc., 1993], 27). Their offspring was the fertility god, Baal, who succeeded El as the main god (Harrison, 167). Baal’s consort, Anat, was eventually identified with Asherah (also known as Astarte and Ashteroth). Excavations in the Phoenicia area revealed a center of worship to Anat, known for its fertility rites of ceremonial prostitution (Harrison, 168; Jordan, 17). Figures of these goddesses have been found throughout Palestine, depicted with exaggerated sexual features (Harrison, 168; Jordan 17).
God’s people often turned away from him to follow the pagan ways around them: “They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:13 ESV). Canaanites and other Near Eastern peoples worshipped in groves or under green trees with thick foliage (Ezekiel 6:13; 20:28) such as the oak, terebinth (Is 1.29-30, 57:5) and poplar “where the shade is pleasant” (Hosea 4.13 NIV) (Unger, 1306). Not only were wooded areas used as places of worship (Unger, 604), but wood from trees was used to craft images of the goddess Asherah. The most prominent cult object associated with Asherah was a piece of wood (also called an Asherah pole), which was the image of the goddess and was usually erected besides Canaanite shrines (Harrison, 169-70; Jordan, 27; Unger, 484, 569). Canaanite religion involved “ritual prostitution, child sacrifice, and licentious worship” (Harrison, 170; Unger, 569). It is insightful to note that “Asherah” is translated “grove” in the King James version and in Greek and Latin versions of the Bible, since the goddess was associated with worship in those places (Harrison; Holman, 111; Jordan, 27). Veneration of Asherah continued until the 4th century A.D. when Emperor Theodosius destroyed her worship centers (Unger, 603).
Worship of and sacrifices to false gods under luxuriant or green trees is forbidden and condemned in several passages, as is worship of Asherah. Some passages that specifically mention worship of false gods under trees are: Deuteronomy 12:2, 16:20; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:4, 17:10; 2 Chronicles 28:4; Jerermiah 3:6, 13; Ezekiel 6:13, 20:28-29; and Hosea 4:12, 13. God condemns this very pointedly to Israel in Isaiah: “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?” (Is. 57:4b-5 ESV). Child sacrifice often accompanied such rites.
Using the wood of trees to make idols also garners God’s censure. A sample passage states, “Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!'” (Habakkuk 2:18,19a NIV). In Isaiah 44:13-20, God mocks those who cut a tree down and use part of it to build a fire and the other part to fashion idols: “I fall down before a block of wood” (verse 19 NASB). Through the prophet Jeremiah, in chapter 2:26-28, God rebukes this worship of idols, telling his people that they can call on the lifeless pieces of wood for help since they have turned from the true God. Other passages condemning idols of wood include Deuteronomy 4:28, 28:64, 29:16-18; Judges 6:26-27; 2 Kings 19:17, 18; Isaiah 40:20; Daniel 5:4, 23; and Hosea 4:12. In the Judges passage, God tells Gideon to tear down an altar to Baal and use the wood of an Asherah pole, apparently located at the Baal shrine, to build a fire for sacrifice to God.
Trees In Paganism
Just as trees were used as a gathering place for worship of false gods, and as the wood of trees was used for idols, so has paganism throughout history attached magical or godlike powers to nature, including trees. A central component of the gnostic-like Kabbalah is its teaching on the Tree of Life, an inverted tree symbolic of the descent of God’s light and power to earth, growing denser and darker as it flows downward. There are ten points, the sefirot, on this tree representing the ten attributes and emanations of Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic god, with one side being masculine, the other being feminine, and three points in the middle to balance the polarity. This tree also symbolizes man’s original nature, and represents man’s way back to union with the Divine (This information is a summation of teachings that can be found in several books, including Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is A Verb [NY: Riverhead Books, 1997]; Rav P. S. Berg, The Essential Zohar [NY: Bell Tower, Crown Publishing Group, 2002]; Yehuda Berg, The Power of the Kabbalah [Kabbalah Centre International, 2001]; Daniel C. Matt, Zohar: Annotated and Explained [Woodstock, VT: Skylights Path Publishing, 2002]; and Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism [NY: HarperCollins Publishers, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995]. For further information on this see the CANA article on the Kabbalah.
Modern Druids believe that their name comes from a word for “oak” and the oak tree is especially sacred for them, a doorway through which one can enter another state of consciousness (Carr-Gomm, x, 110; Teresa Moorey, Paganism [London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 1996], 80). Since the oak, as one of the oldest and largest trees, symbolized all trees, so “he who possessed knowledge of the oak possessed knowledge of all trees” (Carr-Gomm, xi, 110). Trees shelter and feed us, and have powers that can enrich us (Carr-Gomm, 80, 103). Druids should establish personal relationships with the trees and “their spirits” (Carr-Gomm, 107). Here we see creation used as a means for spirit contact, instead of recognizing God’s hand in creation, and that his creation glorifies him.
Trees were believed to be the abode of nymphs in ancient lore (Biedermann, 351) and earth fertility rites usually centered on deciduous trees that went through cycles of losing leaves or fruits and then blooming again (Tresidder, 209). Ancient Egypt venerated the sycamore, out of which the goddess Hathor offered food and drink to the dead in the afterlife (Biedermann, 351; Cooper, 177, 178).
Thus, we see that pagans viewed trees as a source of life and sacredness, a way to connect with heaven. This is consistent with pagan patterns of seeking a life force or power that can be accessed through an object, ritual, or by invoking a spirit (often through the use of rituals and sometimes objects). In contrast to these magical and mythical views, the Hebrew Scriptures speak of life as experiential for man and as an inherent part of him as a living being, with God as the source; rather than seeing life as a vitality or magical force separate from man (TWOT, Vol. 1, 279). In the ancient near east, men tried to link with “forces of life” through nature deities or magical incantations and rituals. This accessing of a life force is also found in Taoism (called chi), which arose from early Chinese Shamanism, and in Hinduism (called prana). This belief is found in most occult teachings today. In the Hebrew Scriptures, on the other hand, life is through right relationship with God, and through his word and wisdom (TWOT, 280).
The Tree As Restoration
Through disobedience to God in eating from one tree, man was denied his original fellowship with God. But God provided a way back to himself, and so we see trees in the Bible as representative of restoration, healing, and redemption. In Exodus chapter 15, Moses and the people have just exulted over their deliverance by God from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Three days pass without water when they come upon the waters of Marah, only to discover the waters are bitter, so the people grumble. Following God’s instructions, Moses takes a tree (“tree” in NASB and NET Bible; “log” in ESV; and “piece of wood” in NIV) and throws it into the water, and the water becomes sweet (verse 25). God then declares in verse 26, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer” (ESV).
God is revealing himself here as Jehovah-rophecha (or Yahweh Rophe), the God who heals (Wycliffe, 65). The word rophe appears sixty to seventy times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Nathan Stone, Names of God [Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1944], 72; Ann Spangler, Praying the Names of God [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004], 98, 100), but from a look at Strong’s, it seems that this is only the second time this word appears.
Rophe (Strong’s 7495, rapha) means to heal, restore, cure, and make whole, not just in the physical sense, but in the moral and spiritual sense as well because it is sin that has caused man’s original separation from God, and healing or full restoration also encompasses redemption (Stone, 72-74; Spangler, 100). In contrast to ancient man’s belief that disease was caused by evil spirits, thus calling for magical incantations or potions for relief, God is declaring here that what prevents disease and brings healing is following his commands (Spangler, 101-02). A vivid portrait of this lesson is God’s power to change the bitter taste of water to a sweet taste, and he uses part of a tree as the instrument to represent his power, just as he used Aaron’s staff, or rod, with the Egyptians. It is not that the piece of wood is magical, but that it represents God’s power and authority, because the power is clearly in and from God.
This piece of wood that turned bitter waters to sweet is a foreshadowing of the cross (Stone, 76), which, of course, came from a tree as well. The New Testament, quoting the Deuteronomy passage in Galatians 3:13, refers to the curse of being hung on a tree as becoming the means of redemption: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE” (NASB; also, see 1 Peter 2:24). In fact, some have seen the cross as symbolically being made from the wood of the tree of knowledge as a sign of restoration and redemption (Biedermann, 351; Cooper, 178).
Just as God showed condemnation through passages that described the trees drying up, so God paints a picture of the restoration of Israel using the imagery of productive and flourishing trees: “And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them” (Ezekiel 34:27 ESV; also see Isaiah 41:10; Ezekiel 36:30; Hosea 14:4-6; and Micah 4:4). A dramatic prophecy comes in Ezek. 47:12: “On both sides of the river’s banks, every kind of tree will grow for food. Their leaves will not wither nor will their fruit fail, but they will bear fruit every month, because their water source flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be food and their leaves for healing” (ESV). The King James Version uses the word “medicine” instead of “healing,” but these words come from Strong’s 8644, deriving from a word for healing (BAGD, 930; TWOT, 839).
This prophecy in Ezekiel appears to be predictive of the total restoration and healing that will come through the final redemption as described in Revelation 22, a scene believed to be descriptive of heaven (seen also as the restored Eden, or Paradise regained): “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 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” (verses 1-2 ESV).
The tree of life, denied to man after the fall, is now available to the one who “conquers:” “To the one who conquers I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7 NET Bible). But who conquers? It is the one who trusts in Christ: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans. 8:37 ESV).
The true source of life is God, not creation, not one’s self, not magical objects or forces, not even the tree of life, which only represents God’s life-giving nature. In rebuking those who had turned to idols, God tells them, “O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like a luxuriant cypress; from Me comes your fruit” (Hosea 14:8 NASB). God declares himself as the very source of life; the trees with their fruit and leaves depend on Him, just as Israel does. When one departs from God, trees do not yield their fruit and leaves wither; however, the man who trusts in God will be like “a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8 NIV; similar passages are in Psalm 1:3 and 92:12).
A prophecy of redemption through the Messiah in Isaiah 11:1 uses a branch as imagery, stating, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (ESV). A similar passage is found in Zechariah 3:8b: “Behold, I will bring my servant the Branch,” and verse 10 promises that iniquity will be removed and that “In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree” (ESV).
Another reference to the Branch in Zechariah 6:12 has this commentary, “The epithet “Branch” (tsemakh) derives from the verb used here (yitsmakh, “will sprout up”) to describe the rise of the Messiah, already referred to in this manner in Zechariah 3:8 (cf. Isa 11:1; 53:2; Jer 33:15). In the immediate context this refers to Zerubbabel, but the ultimate referent is Jesus” (NET Bible, 1670). Through the Branch, that is the descendant, there will be fruit, peace, and healing. The trees themselves, once used for pagan worship and to fashion pagan images, poetically rejoice: “. . . and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55.12b ESV).
One scholar noted that there might be a connection between the fig leaves used by Adam and Eve for hiding their nakedness after the fall and the mention in Revelation chapter 22 of the leaves for healing (Thomas Howe, Ph.D., Professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Charlotte, NC). God uses pictures of leaves falling or withering in Isaiah 34:4 where the host of heaven falls like leaves from the fig tree under God’s judgment on the nations, and in Jeremiah 8:13, where the leaves have withered in Judah due to Israel’s apostasy. God predicts the restoration of the garden, or perhaps man’s re-access to the garden, in Ezekiel chapter 47 and Revelation chapter 22. Just as leaves were used by man as a covering in the fall due to shame before God, so leaves will be redeemed to represent healing or restoration in the time of total redemption.
The physical properties of leaves in ancient times were utilized for ailments or injuries. Blackberry leaves were chewed for bleeding gums or used for burns; olive leaves were an astringent; and sycamore and walnut leaves were applied to wounds (Ryken, 497-98). In Ezekiel 47:12 and its mirror passage, Revelation 22:2, we see the tree of life with leaves for healing, not just for physical healing, but for the healing of final redemption and restoration (The Hebrew word for ‘healing’ in Ezekiel 47.12 has meanings that include to “prosper, to sustain life, or to nourish,” [TWOT, Vol. 1, 280]).
To use leaves as part of this imagery makes sense in light of Romans 8:19-22, which speaks of creation’s fall (due to man’s sin) and yearning for redemption. The trees are even depicted as longing for God’s judgment: “Then the trees of the forest will sing with joy before the Lord; for He is coming to judge the earth” (1 Chronicles 16:33 NASB).
The trees in the Ezekiel passages, like the Garden of Eden being watered by a river (Genesis 2:10), are on both sides of the river bearing fruit very month. In the future vision of Revelation 22:2, the tree of life is on each side of the “water of life” that flows from the throne of “God and the Lamb” and runs through the middle of the street, bearing twelve kinds of fruit. So we see a parallel between the trees by a river in Genesis, where the tree of life was denied and leaves were used to hide from God to the trees by the river in Ezekiel with leaves of healing; and a final parallel in Revelation to the tree of life on each side of a river “of life” with leaves for healing.
Restoration to Life
Expectations of restoration from death are seen in passages such as Psalms 49:15 (“But God will rescue me from the power of death” ESV), Psalms 17:15, Psalms 73:23-36, and Hosea 6:1, 2. “This expectation is neither magical nor mythical not speculative nor mystical. It is a certainty produced in the righteous by the concept of grace alone” (Quoting Bultmann, TDNT, II, 848, in TWOT, 280). God, as always, is the source of life, nourishment, restoration, and redemption.
Trees, a part of creation that played such a crucial role in the fall, that were used as shade for the worship of gods other than the one true living I AM God, and whose wood was carved to form idols, are now producing fruit. The forbidden tree that led to sin became the true tree of life when Jesus died on the cross, atoning for sins. The leaves that covered Adam and Eve are gone, replaced by leaves that heal. The future restoration is complete, and those redeemed in Christ are now in a restored creation with God.
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Moorey, Teresa. Paganism. London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 1996.
NET Bible. n.p.: Biblical Studies Press, 2001.
Packer, J. I. and M. C. Tenney, eds. Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1980.
Pfeiffer, Charles F. and Everett F. Harrison, eds. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1990.
Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1998.
Spangler, Ann. Praying the Names of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.
Stone, Nathan. Names of God. Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1944.
Strong, James. New Strong’s Concordance. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998; Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997.
Unger, Merrill F. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Ed. R. K. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.
Wight, Fred H. Manners & Customs of Bible Lands. Chicago: Moody Press, 1953.