A Luxuriant Olive Tree in the House of God
IN THE land of Israel, there grows a tree that is practically indestructible. Even when chopped down, its rootstock soon sends up new shoots. And when its fruit is harvested, it rewards its owner with abundant oil that can be used for cooking, lighting, hygiene, and cosmetics.
According to an ancient parable recorded in the Bible book of Judges, “once upon a time the trees went to anoint a king over them.” Which tree of the forest was their first choice? None other than the hardy, bountiful olive tree.
Over 3,500 years ago, the prophet Moses described Israel as ‘a good land, a land of olives.’ (Deuteronomy 8:7, 8) Even today, olive groves dot the landscape from the foot of Mount Hermon in the north to the outskirts of Beersheba in the south. They still grace the coastal Plain of Sharon, the rocky hillsides of Samaria, and the fertile valleys of Galilee.
Bible writers often used the olive tree in a figurative sense. Features of this tree served to illustrate God’s mercy, the resurrection promise, and happy family life. A closer look at the olive will help us to understand these Scriptural references and will deepen our appreciation for this unique tree that joins the rest of creation in praising its Maker.
The Rugged Olive Tree
An olive tree is not particularly impressive at first sight. It does not reach to the heavens like some stately cedars of Lebanon. Its timber is not so prized as the juniper, and its blossoms do not delight the eye like those of the almond tree. (Song of Solomon 1:17; Amos 2:9) The most important part of the olive tree lies unseen
Such roots allow olive trees on stony hillsides to survive a drought when trees in the valley below have already died of thirst. The roots enable it to continue producing olives for centuries, even though the gnarled trunk may look fit only for firewood. All this rugged tree demands is room to grow and aerated soil so that it can breathe, free from weeds or other vegetation that might harbor harmful pests. If these simple demands are met, one tree will supply up to 15 gallons [57 liters] of oil a year.
Undoubtedly the olive was beloved by the Israelites for its precious oil. Lamps with wicks drawing up olive oil illuminated their homes. (Leviticus 24:2) Olive oil was essential in cooking. It protected the skin against the sun, and it provided the Israelites with soap for washing. Grain, wine, and olives were the main crops of the land. Failure of the olive harvest would thus be a disaster for an Israelite family.
Usually, however, olive oil was abundant. Moses referred to the Promised Land as ‘a land of olives’ likely because the olive was the most commonly cultivated tree in the area. Nineteenth-century naturalist H. B. Tristram described the olive as “the one characteristic tree of the country.” Because of its value and abundance, olive oil even served as useful international currency throughout the Mediterranean region. Jesus Christ himself referred to a debt that was calculated to be “a hundred bath measures of olive oil.”
“Like Slips of Olive Trees”
The useful olive tree aptly illustrates divine blessings. How would a God-fearing man be rewarded? “Your wife will be like a fruit-bearing vine in the innermost parts of your house,” sang the psalmist. “Your sons will be like slips of olive trees all around your table.” (Psalm 128:3) What are these “slips of olive trees,” and why does the psalmist compare them to sons?
The olive tree is unusual in that new shoots constantly sprout from the base of its trunk.* When, because of old age, the main trunk no longer bears the fruit it once did, cultivators may allow several slips, or new shoots, to grow until they become an integral part of the tree. After a time, the original tree will have three or four young, vigorous trunks surrounding it, like sons around a table. These slips have the same rootstock, and they share in producing a good crop of olives.
This characteristic of the olive tree aptly illustrates how sons and daughters can grow firm in faith, thanks to the strong spiritual roots of their parents. As offspring grow older, they also have a share in bearing fruit and supporting their parents, who rejoice to see their children serving Jehovah alongside them.
“There Exists Hope for Even a Tree”
An elderly father who serves Jehovah delights in his godly children. But these same children mourn when their father eventually ‘goes in the way of all the earth.’ (1 Kings 2:2) To help us cope with such a family tragedy, the Bible assures us that there will be a resurrection.
Job, the father of many children, was keenly aware of man’s short life span. He compared it to a blossom that quickly withers. (Job 1:2; 14:1, 2) Job longed for death as a way to escape from his agony, viewing the grave as a place of concealment from which he could return. “If an able-bodied man dies can he live again?” Job asked. Then he confidently answered: “All the days of my compulsory service I shall wait, until my relief comes. You [Jehovah] will call, and I myself shall answer you. For the work of your hands you will have a yearning.”
How did Job illustrate his conviction that God would call him forth from the grave? By means of a tree, the description of which makes it likely that he was referring to the olive. “There exists hope for even a tree,” Job said. “If it gets cut down, it will even sprout again.” (Job 14:7) An olive tree may be chopped down, but that will not destroy it. Only if the tree is uprooted will it die. If the roots remain intact, the tree will sprout again with renewed vigor.
Even if a prolonged drought severely withers an old olive tree, the shriveled stump can come back to life. “If its root grows old in the earth and in the dust its stump dies, at the scent of water it will sprout and it will certainly produce a bough like a new plant.” (Job 14:8, 9) Job lived in a dry, dusty land where he had probably observed many an old olive stump that looked dried up and lifeless. When the rains came, however, such a “dead” tree returned to life and a new trunk emerged from its roots as if it were “a new plant.” This remarkable resilience led one Tunisian horticulturist to observe: “You can say that olive trees are immortal.”
Just as a farmer longs to see his withered olive trees sprout again, so Jehovah yearns to resurrect his faithful servants. He looks forward to the time when faithful individuals like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and many others will be restored to life. (Matthew 22:31, 32) How wonderful it will be to welcome back the dead and see them living full and fruitful lives once more!
The Symbolic Olive Tree
God’s mercy is manifest in his impartiality as well as in his provision for a resurrection. The apostle Paul used the olive tree to illustrate how Jehovah’s mercy extends to people regardless of their race or background. For centuries the Jews had prided themselves on being God’s chosen people, ‘the offspring of Abraham.’
Being born into the Jewish nation was not in itself a requirement for obtaining divine favor. Jesus’ earliest disciples, however, were all Jews, and they had the privilege of being the first humans selected by God to make up the promised seed of Abraham. (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:29) Paul likened these Jewish disciples to branches of a symbolic olive tree.
The majority of the natural Jews rejected Jesus, disqualifying themselves as future members of the “little flock,” or “the Israel of God.” (Luke 12:32; Galatians 6:16) Thus, they became like symbolic olive branches that had been lopped off. Who would take their place? In the year 36 C.E., Gentiles were chosen to become part of Abraham’s seed. It was as if Jehovah had grafted wild olive branches onto the garden olive tree. Those who would make up the promised seed of Abraham would include people of the nations. Gentile Christians could now become ‘sharers of the olive’s root of fatness.’
For a farmer, grafting a wild olive branch onto a garden olive tree would be unthinkable and “contrary to nature.” (Romans 11:24) “Graft the good upon the wild, and, as the Arabs say, it will conquer the wild,” explains the work The Land and the Book, “but you cannot reverse the process with success.” Jewish Christians were likewise amazed when Jehovah “for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name.” (Acts 10:44-48; 15:14) This was a clear sign, however, that the outworking of God’s purpose did not depend on any one nation. No, for “in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”
Paul indicated that since unfaithful Jewish “branches” of the olive tree had been lopped off, the same could happen to anyone else who through pride and disobedience did not remain in Jehovah’s favor. (Romans 11:19, 20) This surely illustrates that God’s undeserved kindness should never be taken for granted.
Greasing With Oil
The Scriptures make both literal and figurative references to the use of olive oil. In ancient times, wounds and bruises were ‘softened with oil’ to promote the healing process. (Isaiah 1:6) According to one of Jesus’ illustrations, the neighborly Samaritan poured olive oil and wine on the wounds of the man he encountered on the road to Jericho.
Applying olive oil to one’s head is refreshing and soothing. (Psalm 141:5) And in handling cases of spiritual sickness, Christian elders may ‘grease a member of the congregation with oil in the name of Jehovah.’ (James 5:14) The elders’ loving Scriptural counsel and heartfelt prayers in behalf of their spiritually sick fellow believer are compared to soothing olive oil. Interestingly, in idiomatic Hebrew a good man is sometimes described as “pure olive oil.”
“A Luxuriant Olive Tree in God’s House”
In view of the foregoing points, it is not surprising that servants of God can be likened to olive trees. David desired to be like “a luxuriant olive tree in God’s house.” (Psalm 52:8) Just as Israelite families often had olive trees surrounding their houses, so David wished to be close to Jehovah and to produce fruit to God’s praise.
While faithful to Jehovah, the two-tribe kingdom of Judah was like “a luxuriant olive tree, pretty with fruit and in form.” (Jeremiah 11:15, 16) But the people of Judah lost that privileged position when ‘they refused to obey Jehovah’s words and walked after other gods.’
To become a luxuriant olive tree in God’s house, we must obey Jehovah and be willing to accept the discipline by which he “prunes” us so that we can bear more Christian fruitage. (Hebrews 12:5, 6) Moreover, just as a natural olive tree needs extensive roots to survive a period of drought, we need to fortify our spiritual roots in order to endure trials and persecution.
The olive tree well symbolizes the faithful Christian, who may be unknown to the world but is recognized by God. If such a person should die in this system, he will live again in the new world to come.
The practically indestructible olive tree that keeps on bearing fruit year after year reminds us of God’s promise: “Like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; and the work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full.” (Isaiah 65:22) That prophetic promise will be fulfilled in God’s new world.
Usually these new shoots are pruned every year so that they do not sap strength from the main tree.
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An ancient gnarled trunk found in Jávea, Alicante Province, Spain
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Olive groves in Granada Province, Spain
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An ancient olive tree outside the walls of Jerusalem
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The Bible mentions the grafting of branches onto an olive tree
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This old olive tree is surrounded by slips of young branches