The Spiritual Significance of Trees

Spiritual Significance of Trees
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When all of my neighbor’s trees, the “forest next door,” were chopped down about 20 years ago, something changed within me: without warning or intention, I became somewhat obsessed with trees. I read the nonfiction book Trees of the Northern United States and Canada like it was a novel. I had to identify every tree I walked by, and I began planning family vacations around trees I wanted to see (bald cypress swamp forest in southern Illinois, anyone?).

New scientific research on trees fascinated me. Forest trees, I learned, communicate through an amazing network of fungal and root connections. Precision dendrometers measure the expansion and contraction of trunks down to fractions of a millimeter to show how trees respond to their environment. There is even science to back up what we know just by experience: there is a calming effect from walking in a forest.

As a Bible teacher, I was drawn to the prominence trees have in God’s Word. When I read the Bible, every tree reference jumped out at me. The spiritual significance of trees is deeply rooted in Scripture.

God’s Plan and Trees

Trees provide a framework for the biblical story. Admittedly, it’s not the only way to understand the Bible; however, trees are present at every important stage. At creation, humans were blessed to live in the Garden of Eden. A central aspect of this paradise was trees described as “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Believe it or not, nothing else is described as “pleasing to the eye” in the creation account! What stood at the center of the garden? Trees—the tree of life with its life-giving fruit, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which humans were not to eat.

We read in Genesis 3 that Adam and Eve sinned by eating from this second tree. They brought sin to humanity and to the rest of creation. They were banished from the garden and, significantly, from the tree of life. The ensuing story of salvation is to bring humanity back to the tree of life: a setting of perfect harmony with God and one another in a restored creation. Jesus pays the price for our sin on a tree, another word for the cross. This dead tree becomes a symbol of salvation, pointing to the flourishing tree of life in the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 22.

Trees in the Bible

Within this grand story of redemption, trees figure prominently in many other ways. Benefits of trees are numerous and varied. Because trees are essential for human life and flourishing, tree metaphors appear frequently in the Biblical message. Between the tree of life in Genesis and in Revelation, how are we to live? Like a tree!

Psalm 1:2-3 tells us that drawing nourishment from God’s Word makes one like a strong tree. The path toward success from God’s perspective is best understood by delighting in the law of the Lord and observing a thriving tree. In Proverbs 3:18, wisdom is a tree of life that will lead to blessing. The righteous are compared to palm trees and cedars of Lebanon in Psalm 92:12. The palm tree refers to the date palm, a desert tree, while the cedars of Lebanon were the tallest and most massive trees in the region, located in the mountains north of Israel. Despite their differences, both trees were picturesque, strong, and long-lived—a fitting metaphor for a godly life.

When it comes to the New Testament, there is more to trees than Zacchaeus, the tax collector and tree climber (who climbed a tree related to the fig family, not a sycamore). Jesus used the mustard seed and tree to speak of the growth of his kingdom (Matt. 13), and Jesus used a fig tree to describe his second coming (Mark 13). In Romans 11, the apostle Paul uses an olive tree to explain salvation and the people of God. Both Jew and Gentile, separate people for millennia, come together now as one in Christ. The ability to graft branches into olive trees illustrates how two diverse groups become united.

When you are amazed at the beauty of the forest or the shape and stature of a majestic tree, what should you do? Worship. Trees lift their limbs in praise to their creator and in so doing point us to God. Psalm 96:12 states, “Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Isaiah 55:12 concurs: “All the trees of the field will clap their hands.” And speaking of the prophet Isaiah ...

The Bible Tree Guy

Which biblical author mentions trees most frequently and seems to have the most arboreal knowledge? The prophet Isaiah. Which Bible verse lists the most species of trees and how many? Isaiah 41:19: “I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together.” Just as God will supply trees that signal water sources and provide shade in the desert, God will abundantly bless God’s people.

Isaiah prophesied the Messiah using a tree: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1). The stump represents God’s judgment because of sin. A fruitful tree was chopped down and appears dead. But the tree, likely an olive tree, is very much alive underground. There is hope! From the stump comes a shoot that becomes a new tree. Despite present destruction and despair, God is faithful and at work. Jesus will come to bring hope to the world. Additionally, the Messiah’s arrival is described with a tree: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot” (Isa. 53:2). And when Jesus comes, what will his people be like? “Oaks of righteousness” (Isa. 61:3). For people around the world, oaks are a tree of strength, long life, and numerous benefits.

Trees and You

I find myself talking about trees with people. An elderly man from church told me how, after the loss of his wife, he would sit among the trees at the edge of a lake in a forest preserve. He would pray and process the loss. As he lingered under the trees, God’s peace bathed his wounded heart.

Take time to notice trees as you read God’s Word and as you explore God’s world. There is something special about them. Trees frame God’s redemptive plan. How do they frame your life? I like to refer to the forest as the cathedral of God’s creation. So when you need to pray, when thoughts are dominated by hurt and anxiety, go for a walk. Stroll among the silent sentinels that declare God’s faithfulness, the towering trees that point to the heavens in worship.

As you plant trees, consider their benefits and count your blessings from God. As you witness trees grow, year after year, as new life appears each spring, consider the hope we have in Jesus Christ. This hope gives us peace in the present and great expectation for the future, as we look forward to the eternal tree of life.

About the Author

Mac Wiener is a middle and high school Bible teacher at Timothy Christian Schools in Elmhurst, Ill. He has digitally mapped all the trees on Timothy’s campus and received national arboretum accreditation for the school. Mac attends Lombard Christian Reformed Church.

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Comments

Such a great article - thanks! I too am fascinated by trees. I spent the weekend planting 70 of them, little babies from the Soil Conservation Service. We had room for them in the areas that were cleared when our home was built here in "the woods". One of the most amazing things to me is the way trees communicate and share resources with one another through their underground systems. What can we learn from trees as a community about our own human interconnectedness, sharing resources, and thriving together?

It's no seceret to my friends (and some alarmed neighbours) that I climb trees to pray. There's always wisdom to be found up in their branches.

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