Trees appear throughout the Bible numerous times. Trees are used to symbolize pride and rebellion (Ezekiel 17:22-24), while others symbolize God’s future rest and refreshment for Israel (Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10), and in other passages, indicate restoration for those who have believed in Christ (Revelation 22:2). The cross was fashioned with wood from a tree, and we can journey from rebellion to redemption through the tree imagery in Scripture.
Trees Connected to Rebellion
One of the first trees in the Bible was the tree of knowledge of good and evil whose fruit was forbidden to Adam and Eve, and which led to man’s disobedience and the first sin when they ate from it. Later, 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 worshiped in groves or under green trees with thick foliage (Ezekiel 6:13; 20:28) such as the oak, terebinth (Isaiah 1.29-30, 57:5), and poplar where the shade is pleasant (Hosea 4.13 NIV) (Unger, Merrill F., The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Ed. R. K. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988., 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.
Trees whose wood was carved into idols and decorated is addressed in several passages. 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 nineteen, NASB
Through the prophet Jeremiah, in 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; Jeremiah 10 (this chapter mocks the wooden idols who cannot speak and must be carried around); Daniel 5:4, 23; and Hosea 4:12.
Trees as Images of Redemption
Tree of Life: Parallel to the tree in the Garden that led to Adam’s sin was the Tree of Life, which appears again in the future for those in Christ (Revelation 22:1,2,14). Not much is revealed about this tree, except that it represents life and restoration (leaves for healing the nations in verse two, with healing meaning future restoration, physically and spiritually, for Gentiles; nations refers to Gentiles]).
Verse fourteen tells us that those who “wash their robes” have access to the tree of life. The only way to wash one’s robe is through faith in Christ, whose blood cleanses from sin and whose righteousness is imputed to those who believe in him.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. NASB
The Waters of Marah: In the wilderness journey, a log (or tree) turns the bitter waters of Marah sweet (marah means bitter). 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.
They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water at Marah because it was bitter–that is why it was named Marah. The people grumbled to Moses, “What are we going to drink?” So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he threw it into the water, the water became drinkable. Exodus 15:23-25 HCSB
This wood foreshadows the cross. 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)
The Curse Thwarted: 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). Yet Jesus took this curse and hung on a tree (a cross made from wood) to pay the penalty for sins so that all who believe on him are forgiven and have eternal life. The piece of wood that turned bitter waters to sweet prefigures the cross, which 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 of good and evil as a sign of restoration and redemption.
The Christmas Tree
A Christmas tree can be a sweet reminder of all these events given in God’s revelation, especially that the cross is a symbol of the price that Christ paid for the penalty of sins, enabling those who believe in him to have eternal life.
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. 1 Peter 2:24, HCSB
The Christmas tree is related to the cross, not to the carved idols. The first documented Christmas trees came from Christians in 1441 in Estonia and in 1510 in Latvia (see CANA article on Christmas). The tree represents the wood that turns bitter to sweet, condemnation to redemption.
In the Biblical narrative, the pagan use of trees is overshadowed by Christ and the cross; the Christmas tree can be a precious remembrance of that. The cross defeats the wooden idols and crushes the false gods.
Then all the trees of the field will know
that I am Yahweh.
I bring down the tall tree,
and make the low tree tall.
I cause the green tree to wither
and make the withered tree thrive.
I, Yahweh, have spoken
and I will do it. Ezekiel 17:24 HCSB
The glory of Lebanon shall come to you,
The cypress, the pine, and the box tree together,
To beautify the place of My sanctuary;
And I will make the place of My feet glorious. Isaiah 60:13 NKJV
The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to destroy the Devil’s works. 1 John 3:8b HCSB