The Tree of Life in Scripture

*** This article is part of a blog series about what it means to live with Christ as our source. You can check out the Introduction to the series here. ***

Out of all the things in scripture, the Tree of Life is one of the only things that we see both in the first and the last book of the bible. It is not focused on, but simply mentioned in each. And although, based on the very little that is said about it, we could assume that it is insignificant, I think that actually the opposite is true. I think that it is one of the only things we see as “normal” or “natural” to Eden – the place where heaven and earth meet. Every time we see God “dwelling” with man, the Tree of Life is mentioned or symbolically present. And that my dear friends is significant. Because God with man is the ulimate purpose and reason for creation and subsequently salvation,  redemption, and recreation.

So lets take a look at how the Tree of Life is represented in the Old Testament.

The Tree of Life – A journey through the Old Testament

In Genesis, we see man being introduced to the Tree of Life, and then later, because of his disobedience, being banned from the garden and subsequently cut off from the Tree of Life. God takes this so seriously that he places an angel with a flaming sword in front of it to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 2:9, 3:22, 3:24)

Then, after a long time without any mention of it, we begin to see the Tree of Life revealed again to the people of God in symbolic ways. Firstly, God reveals Himself to Moses through a burning bush (an interesting choice). And then, after leaving Egypt and giving Moses instructions for the building of the tabernacle, we see the lamp-stand (which would burn throughout the night, giving light to the Most  Holy Place) designed to look like an Almond tree. (Exodus 3:1-6, 25:31-40, 37:19-20)

Thereafter, Aaron’s staff, when placed in front of the Holy of Holy’s begins to bud and blossom with almond flowers and ripe almonds. These were the “first fruits” for the House of Israel and was a prophetic picture of the fruitfullness of the land of Canaan that they would later enter. Interestingly, this budding staff was later placed in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the stone tablets of the law and the golden jar of manna. (Numbers 17:1-11)

Then, God makes a very interesting law related to a tree. He tells the people of Israel to kill those of their tribe that commit sins worthy of death, and hang them on trees for all to see. But only until evening, after which they must be taken down and buried, else the curse of God will be upon them and the land. Later in Joshua this is done to the king of Ai and to five of the Southern Kings in Canaan.  (Deutoronomy 21:22-23, Joshua 8:29, 10:26) Although this may seem like a disturbing reference to a tree in the OT and seemingly unrelated to the Tree of Life, you will see its relevance in future posts. 

Then, in the Psalms and major prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah), trees begin to take on a different symbolism. They begin to be used as metaphors for people. Psalm 1 in fact relates one who is focused on the Word of God thinking about ‘it’ all day and night to be like a tree that is planted by streams of’living’ water, producing fruit when it must and never withering or dying. Isaiah calls people “oaks” of righteousness and even personifies the trees of the field to clap their hands as the people of Israel are led out with peace and joy. (Psalm 1:2-3, 92:12, Isaiah 61:3-4, 55:12, Jeremiah 17:8)

Then in proverbs we see the tree of life used as a symbol for life, wisdom and blessing. Wisdom is said to be a tree of life, and men are encouraged to lay hold of her. A gentle tongue and the fruit of the righteous is said to be a tree of life. And lastly, a desire fulfilled is represented as a tree of life. (Proverbs 3:18, 11:30, 13:12, 15:4)

Later, in a vision of the new temple and city, Ezekiel sees not just one tree, but what he describes as “all kinds of trees” for food growing on either side of a river. Their leaves never withering and their fruit never failing. The trees bear fruit every month because they receive water from the throne (sanctuary), and their fruit is used for food and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12)

At the end of Hosea we see a wonderful image of a tree used to describe both Israel and the Lord in the same chapter. In His plea for Israel to return to the Lord, Hosea says that as the Lord becomes dew to Israel, causing him to blossom like the lily, to take root like the trees of Lebanon. He says that Israel’s beauty shall be like the olive tree and his fragrance like the cedar trees of Lebanon. Then it swaps over and the the Lords is described as a tree that will produce shade for His people to live underneath. And because of this, they will blossom like a grapevine. At the end, the Lord encourages His people not to go to idols and says, “I am like an evergreen tree, all your fruit comes from me.”

Additionally, in some of the minor prophets we see that God begins to use trees to represent Israels source of life in that without them their would be no shade, no building materials, no crop to eat and no food for their livestock. And subsequently, when God punishes his people for not obeying him, he cuts them off from their practical life supply (which are trees and the fruit from trees) through droughts and storms. Also, of the many trees that are mentioned in the Old Testament, each is used to display something unique about God, life, or humans. One type of tree in particular that is mentioned in both Judges and Isaiah is the vine tree. Other trees that are mentioned often are the fig tree, the palm tree, the oak tree, the cedar tree, and the olive tree.

In Conclusion

In the Old Testament, it is clear that after man was expelled from the garden and cut off from the Tree of life, the Lord slowly begins reintroducing it in various ways to His people. He makes it a significant element in the tabernacle, which was designed to, among other things, reintroduce the concept of “God dwelling with man.”  He then begins using trees as a symbol that exposes sin as the Israelites move into the promised land and place on trees the kings of the sinful pagan nations. Later in the Psalms and Proverbs we see the tree of life symbolically representing elements of the higher life that should be desired and ardently sought after. And then, after teaching the Israelites that growing around the river that flows from the throne in the new temple is a myriad of trees producing miraculous fruit and leaves through Ezekiel’s vision, he tells them through Hosea that the Lord likens Israel to a beautiful tree as well as Himself to an everlasting green tree that protects and provides for them all the nourishment they could ever need.

Then walks in Jesus of Nazareth…

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