Will Your Days Be “Like the Days of a Tree”?
AMONG the restoration prophecies of Isaiah is one promising: “No more will there come to be a suckling a few days old from that place, neither an old man that does not fulfill his days . . . For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be.”—Isa. 65:20, 22.
Here a long life is promised. However, to grasp clearly the meaning of this text and its application to our lives, it is helpful to understand the illustration “like the days of a tree.” Just how long do trees live? How accurate are the ages attached to many trees by men? Is there some reliable method of determining exactly how old a tree is? Did some trees alive today live before the flood of Noah’s day?
It should be remembered that trees and other vegetation have been on earth much longer than man. Man did not put in his appearance until immediately before the seventh “day” of the creative “week,” or nearly 6,000 years ago. However, “fruit trees yielding fruit according to their kinds” were created in the third creative epoch.—Gen. 1:9-13.
Since each of the creative “days” or periods was evidently seven thousand years long, the whole creative “week” takes in 49,000 years. If that period is likened to a twelve-hour clock, then trees and other vegetation appeared between about three-thirty and five-fifteen. And man? Much later—sometime after ten o’clock! Yes, trees on earth for between twenty-seven thousand and thirty-four thousand years far outdate man’s nearly six-thousand-year tenure.
DETERMINING THE “DAYS OF A TREE”
Aside from the existence of trees in general, individual trees live to be very old too. Just how old exactly?
Gnarled olive trees, said to be one to two thousand years old, still bear fruit, making them possibly the longest lived orchard species. Certain white-barked pines (Pinus bungeana) indigenous to north China are said to fall within the same age category. The baobab tree of central Africa attains great ages.
But in all these cases, no one can say exactly how old such trees really are, age estimates being based on oral tradition. Yet there are written records claiming to document the ages of some trees.
The bo (bodhi) tree of Anuradhapura, Ceylon, is sometimes called “the oldest historical tree in the world.” According to The Mahāvamsa (The Great Chronicle of Ceylon, compiled in the fifth century C.E.), this tree was planted in the eighteenth year of King Devānampiyatissa, a year calculated by some as 288 B.C.E. Even assuming that the present tree is the original one, however, this chronology’s accuracy and the account itself are highly suspect. Notice what is supposed to have taken place when the tree was planted:
“Hardly had he [the king] let it leave his hands but it rose up eighty cubits into the air, and floating thus it sent forth glorious rays of six colours . . . When the great Bodhi-tree at sunset was come down from (its place in the air) . . . Then did the earth quake. [And then a week or so later:] Amid this great assembly, plunged into amazement by this miracle, there grew out of the east branch, even as they gazed, a faultless fruit. . . . And while they all yet gazed, there grew springing from it, eight shoots; and they stood there, young Bodhi-trees four cubits high.”
That hardly sounds like an authoritative account by which to date “the oldest historical tree in the world,” does it?
But is there any scientific way to number “the days of a tree”? What about tree rings?
Many think that all trees add a new ‘ring’ to their trunk each year and that simply by counting the rings a tree’s age can be determined. So it may come as a surprise to them to read that this method actually is uncertain, often inaccurate and, most obviously, incomplete. Why do we say that?
For one thing, it is not unusual for two rings to be added in one year. Thus, an expert in tree-ring studies, A. E. Douglass, observed that for this reason, “10 out of 16 yellow pines from the lower levels of the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson have had to be discarded [in tree-ring study], and the junipers of northern Arizona have so many suspicious rings that it is almost impossible to work with them. Cypress trees also give much trouble.”
Additionally, rings are usually clearly discernible only on wood that grows quickly and in certain places. Thus Bertram Husch, a United Nations forestry officer in Chile, comments: “In tropical regions this growth characteristic is useless for determining the age of a tree, since periods of growth may not follow a regularly recurring cycle.” Other trees grow so slowly that rings are not noticeable.
Nevertheless, this method is somewhat helpful in approximating the “days” of certain trees. The General Sherman sequoia, still growing in the High Sierras of California, is an example. Tree expert Douglass said, in the Tree Ring Bulletin, that evidence in this tree “supplied an estimate of the age of the tree of 3500 years.” But he added, “plus or minus 500 years.”—July 1946, page 5; italics ours.
Similarly, in the White Mountains, less than a hundred miles away, this same method of age determining is used on bristlecone pines. At least one is claimed to be 4,600 years old. Even assuming that ring structure is fully understood (and it is not), extreme care is needed to count the rings. One specimen contains more than 1,100 rings in less than five inches! Also, it should be noted, that each bristlecone is in a sense not a single tree, but a “grove” of trees with one root system. The ancient-appearing base has actually had different trunks grow from it at different times.
The bristlecone and sequoia are currently considered the oldest trees on earth. Still, who can say that others are not equally old? H. D. Tiemann, writing in Selected Botanical Papers (1969), allows this possibility: “No doubt some of the immense kauri trees of New Zealand (Agathis australis), with their barrel-like trunks and cabbage heads, are as old as the sequoias.”
DID WHOLE TREES SURVIVE THE FLOOD?
So we see that the exact age of such trees cannot be determined, but all the evidence indicates that they are indeed very old. This, however, raises the question: Since the flood of Noah’s day was some 4,300 years ago, are we to believe that some trees now standing, like the bristlecone pine that is said to be 4,600 years old, survived that event intact?
The possibility cannot be entirely dismissed. However, in view of the enormity of the Flood and the destructive effect of water, it seems rather unlikely. (Compare Psalm 104:6-8.) This, too, adds to the doubtfulness of the accuracy of tree-ring dating methods.
But does not the Bible say that soon after the flood a dove released by Noah returned with an “olive leaf freshly plucked in its bill”? Where did it get that if the tree had not survived the Flood?—Gen. 8:11.
Some commentators claim that unquestionably olive trees and others survived the Flood intact. To prove that these trees can survive under water, they have even cited two ancient writers, Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder, as reportedly seeing living olive trees submerged beneath the Red Sea. But is that correct?
Theophrastus, sometimes called the Father of Botany, was a Greek philosopher and naturalist of the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. His most prominent surviving work includes Enquiry into Plants. When describing the Red Sea it also says: “But there are plants in the sea, which they call ‘bay’ and ‘olive.’”
The plant called “olive” that he goes on to describe is not the real olive tree at all but, it is believed, the white mangrove. This latter plant does indeed grow, as he says, “in”—though not, as commentators have wrongly implied, under—the water. Theophrastus’ standard for describing plants was the shape of their leaves. Thus he may have used the term “olive” to describe the plant he was here referring to because its leaf structure was similar to that of the natural olive.
Several centuries later, Pliny the Elder, the Roman, depended on Theophrastus for his information, repeating the earlier writer. Pliny, it is said, “had neither the temperament for original investigation, nor the leisure necessary for the purpose.”—The Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Ed., under “Pliny.”
Therefore, we must conclude that neither of those ancient writers was speaking of genuine olive trees growing under the waters of the Red Sea.
Well, if it appears unlikely that whole trees survived the Flood, how else could tree life have continued? Modern experiments with flooding give us some indications.
For example, scientists have found that seeds of certain plants and trees survive being submerged in water up to thirty months. Additionally, it should be noted that the extent of disastrous effects that various environmental stresses have on seedlings and cuttings is not fully understood. An authority, Jacob Levitt of the University of Missouri, notes:
“It must be admitted that despite the great deal of information accumulated by investigators of freezing, drought, and heat stresses, neither the mechanism of the stress injury nor that of the stress resistance is fully understood. In the case of other stresses [including what he calls ‘flooding injury’] even less is known.”
Emphasizing this unknown factor is the Russian work Wintering of Plants by I. M. Vasil’yev (1956):
“Excessive water in itself is not harmful . . . in the event of flooding during the winter or early spring thaws before growth starts and respiration is comparatively weak—plants may remain a long time under water without any visible harmful aftereffects because their oxygen requirement is small and can be completely covered by the oxygen from the water surrounding the plants, especially if it is flowing.”
All such evidence is admittedly limited. But does it not show the tremendous potential that various tree seeds, seedlings and cuttings have to survive flooding?
Of course, after the Flood, once trees and other plant life started to grow again, many would grow quickly. Teak reaches a height of sixty feet in only fifteen years and musanga may be eighty feet in fourteen years. Tiny Krakatau island, laid bare by a volcanic eruption in 1883, was, less than fifty years later, reforested similar to the rest of the surrounding Malayan region. As for the olive leaf carried by the dove to Noah, it could have been taken from a fairly young sprout that came up after the flood.
UNDERSTANDING ISAIAH’S ILLUSTRATION
In any event this brief examination shows that trees, by their longevity and hardiness, make a fitting illustration of “the days” of godly people, at Isaiah 65:22.
Those prophetic words, as the context shows, had fulfillment to a certain extent in the faithful Jews who returned from Babylonian exile in 537 B.C.E. Under the “new heavens” (or the rulership of Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua), a restored society, or “new earth,” had reason to exult in their manifold blessings. (Isa. 65:17-25) Among these was the promise of longevity. Because they adhered to the high standards of the Mosaic law, God’s Word to them was carried out: “I shall make the number of your days full.” Yes, God assured them, “Your days may prove long upon the ground.” In their case, such ‘fullness’ and ‘length’ of days were aptly compared to that which, in man’s estimation, thrives very long, a tree.—Ex. 23:26; 20:12; compare Psalm 92:13-15.
But this prophecy about the “days of a tree” has an application today. The apostles Peter and John allude to Isaiah’s words, saying that Christians await ‘new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will dwell.’ Soon, under God’s heavenly kingdom, after wickedness has been destroyed, a cleansed human society or “new earth” will thrive. “Death will be no more.”—2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4.
Do you want to be alive then? If so, Peter’s further words should interest you: “Do your utmost to be found finally by him spotless and unblemished and in peace.” Yes, right now action is required on your part.
Diligent application of Scriptural principles in your life will assure you God’s protection through the “great tribulation” into his new order. But, also, it will spare you much suffering and possibly a needlessly shortened life in the present system.
For instance, by avoiding apostates you will not be led astray by their twisted ideas. Similarly, by shunning wrong and immoral association and bad practices you are not likely to fall victim to syphilis, gonorrhea or certain other forms of disease. Yes, the right course set forth in God’s Word has already aided many to realize their maximum potential in years.—2 Pet. 3:14-18.
In addition to this, there is the marvelous prospect of living in God’s new order. When that new order is a reality, trees will, of course, continue to die. But the unending lives of righteous men will be measured “like the days of a tree,” in the thousands of years.
[Chart on page 83]
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Day Three Trees Created
Day Six Man Created