The symbolic meaning of trees in the Bible

Many trees are mentioned in the Bible. Trees have an important symbolic meaning. Already at the beginning of the Bible, trees are written about. Two special trees are mentioned; the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. At the end of the Bible the tree of life is mentioned again. Jesus uses the symbolism of the tree to call people to do good works. He talks about the good fruits that grow on the tree. The symbolic meaning of the tree is also used elsewhere in the Bible.

The meaning of trees in the Bible

The country of the Bible, Israel, has a different climate than the Netherlands. It is drier and warmer there. Different trees grow than we find here in our forests. Israel is bordered by deserts. Water is very important for trees to grow. The roots of the tree must be able to reach the scarce water to stay alive. This image is often used in the Bible. Trees bear fruit and provide welcome shade in the warm climate.

The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). He created man and placed him in a garden. This garden is called the Garden of Eden. It was a paradise garden. In the middle of that garden God placed two special trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first humans, Adam and Eve, were allowed to pick the fruits of the tree of life (the tree of life) and eat them, but God expressly forbade them to eat the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

And the LORD God made to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food; also the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9) And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat, you will surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17)


Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil

At one point Satan comes to Eve in the form of a serpent. He tricks her into taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil by telling her that the fruit of that tree makes you like a god. Eve saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasing to the eyes. Then she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).

The prohibition of the fruit of the tree of life

When God noticed that the people had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he punished them. They were expelled from the Garden of Eden, paradise. Man became a mortal being and was not allowed to take more from the tree of life, otherwise man would live forever.

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil. Now therefore let him not put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, that he might live forever! (Genesis 3:22)


The tree of life on the new earth

One day God will renew everything. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. The tree of life will also be there. In the vision that John receives on Patmos, a picture of the new heaven and the new earth is sketched. The fact that the tree of life appears in it is a symbol for the eternal life that God wants to give. This tree produces twelve fruits. Twelve is a symbol of fullness. The leaves of this tree provide healing. This tree represents salvation and healing.

And he showed me a pure river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of her street and on one side and the other of the river was the Tree of Life, which bears twelve fruits – from month to month it yields its fruit. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)


The tree as a symbol for spiritual life

In the Bible the tree is used as a symbol for the spiritual life of man. The tree needs water to live. The tree reaches through the roots to a source of water. A source is also needed for spiritual life. Bible reading, prayer and church attendance are such sources. The deeper a person’s ‘roots’ go into the Bible, the better that person can withstand the trials and tribulations of life.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He will be like a tree planted by the water, and its roots spread out by the stream. He does not notice when heat comes, his leaves remain green. A year of drought does not harm it, and it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)


Growing towards the light

A spiritual lesson to be learned from trees is that they grow toward the light. Trees need light to live, to grow and bear fruit. A tree grows in such a way that it can absorb the most light with its leaves. Trees naturally grow towards the light. This process is called phototropism. This word is derived from the Greek photos (light) and tropos (turning). This is an image applicable to the spiritual life of man. Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8:12). Focusing on Jesus is a prerequisite for spiritual growth in the Christian faith.

The tree and its fruits

A tree symbolizes spiritual life. If a tree is doing well it will bear fruit. It is the same with the spiritual life. If someone lives according to God’s will, he or she will also bear good fruit. The apostle Paul indicates in his letter to the church of Galatians what the good fruits are. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 6:22).

Jesus about the good fruit on the tree

In the Gospels Matthew and Luke a number of statements by Jesus are recorded about the tree bearing fruit. Here too, the tree symbolizes spiritual life. Every tree is known by its fruits. “For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor gather grapes from thorns” (Luke 6:44). Also, “every good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). ‘Suppose the tree is good, then its fruit is also good; or if the tree is bad, then its fruit is also bad. For by its fruit the tree is known” (Matthew 12:33, see also Luke 6:43). You can recognize a good person by his good works. “A good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit, neither can a bad tree bring forth good fruit” (Matthew 7:18).

The warning to bring forth good fruit

Jesus calls to produce good fruit. This call appears to be not without obligation. Jesus warns of the consequences of producing bad fruit. He uses the symbolism of the tree for this warning. ‘The ax is already laid at the root of the trees; “Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). “Every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19).

The tree as a symbol of royalty

In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar describes a vision he received. This vision worries him. It scares him. Nebuchadnezzar told Daniel his dream: “Now the visions that came before me on my bed were these: I looked, and, behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, great was the height thereof. [] And the tree became great and mighty; its height reached to the heavens, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth” (Daniel 4:11-14). Then Nebuchadnezzar sees a watchman coming from heaven. “And he cried out loudly, saying, Cut down the tree, cut down its branches, strip its leaves, and scatter its fruits, so that the beasts may flee from under it, and the birds from its branches” (Daniel 4:20). In this vision the tree symbolizes the kingship of King Nebuchadnezzar. Through this vision, God wants to let the king know that his kingship will be permanent after he has acknowledged that the God of heaven is the Ruler (Daniel 4:26).

read more

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  • The symbolic meaning of body parts in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of colors in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of letters and alphabet in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of letters in the Hebrew Bible

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