Each One Will Sit Under His Fig Tree
SHADE is at a premium during the hot summers in the lands of the Middle East. Any tree offering refuge from the sun’s rays is welcome, especially when it grows near one’s home. With its large, broad leaves and wide-spreading branches, the fig tree provides better shade than almost any other tree of the region.
According to the book Plants of the Bible, the “shade [of a fig tree] is said to be fresher and cooler than that of a tent.” Fig trees growing at the edges of vineyards in ancient Israel offered field workers ideal places for a brief rest.
At the end of a long, hot day, family members could sit under their fig tree and enjoy pleasant association. Moreover, the fig tree rewards its owner with abundant, nutritious fruit. From the time of King Solomon, therefore, sitting under one’s own fig tree represented peace, prosperity, and plenty.
Centuries earlier, the prophet Moses described the Promised Land as ‘a land of figs.’ (Deuteronomy 8:8) Twelve spies provided evidence of its fertility by bringing figs and other fruit back to the Israelite camp. (Numbers 13:21-23) In the 19th century, a traveler to the Bible lands reported that the fig tree was one of the most common trees there. No wonder the Scriptures often mention figs and fig trees!
A Tree With a Double Harvest
The fig tree adapts to most soils, and its extensive root system enables it to endure the long, dry summers of the Middle East. The tree is unusual in that it provides a harvest of early figs in June and a main crop generally from August onward. (Isaiah 28:4) The Israelites usually ate the early crop as fresh fruit. They dried the later crop for use throughout the year. Dried figs could be pressed into round cakes, sometimes with almonds added. These fig cakes were convenient, nourishing, and delicious.
The discreet woman Abigail gave David 200 cakes of pressed figs, no doubt thinking that this would be an ideal food for fugitives. (1 Samuel 25:18, 27) Pressed figs also had medicinal value. A poultice of pressed, dried figs was applied to a boil that threatened the life of King Hezekiah, though his subsequent recovery was principally due to divine intervention.*
In ancient times, dried figs were greatly appreciated throughout the Mediterranean region. The statesman Cato brandished a fig to convince the Roman Senate to embark on the Third Punic War, against Carthage. The best dried figs in Rome came from Caria, in Asia Minor. Thus, carica became the Latin name for dried figs. The same region of present-day Turkey still produces dried figs of excellent quality.
Israelite farmers often planted fig trees in vineyards, but they would cut down unproductive trees. Good soil was too scarce to be wasted on unfruitful trees. In Jesus’ illustration of an unproductive fig tree, the farmer told the vinedresser: “Here it is three years that I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, but have found none. Cut it down! Why really should it keep the ground useless?” (Luke 13:6, 7) Since fruit trees were taxed in the time of Jesus, any unproductive tree would also be an undesirable economic burden.
Figs were of great importance in the Israelite diet. Consequently, a poor fig harvest
Symbol of a Faithless Nation
The Scriptures sometimes use figs or fig trees symbolically. For instance, Jeremiah compared the faithful exiles of Judah to a basket of good figs, the early figs that would usually be eaten fresh. However, the unfaithful exiles were likened to bad figs, which could not be eaten and would have to be discarded.
In his illustration of the unproductive fig tree, Jesus showed God’s patience with the Jewish nation. As noted earlier, he spoke of a certain man who had a fig tree in his vineyard. The tree had been unproductive for three years, and the owner was about to have it cut down. But the vinedresser said: “Master, let it alone also this year, until I dig around it and put on manure; and if then it produces fruit in the future, well and good; but if not, you shall cut it down.”
When Jesus gave this illustration, he had already been preaching for three years, endeavoring to cultivate faith among members of the Jewish nation. Jesus intensified his activity, “fertilizing” the symbolic fig tree
Once again Jesus used the fig tree to illustrate the bad spiritual state of the nation. While traveling from Bethany to Jerusalem four days before his death, he saw a fig tree that had abundant leaves but no fruit whatsoever. Since the early figs appear along with the leaves
Like the unproductive fig tree that looked healthy, the Jewish nation had a deceptive outward appearance. But it had not produced godly fruitage, and it finally rejected Jehovah’s own Son. Jesus cursed the sterile fig tree, and on the following day, the disciples noticed that it had already withered. That dried-up tree aptly signified God’s forthcoming rejection of the Jews as his chosen people.
“Learn From the Fig Tree”
Jesus also used the fig tree to teach an important lesson about his presence. He said: “Learn from the fig tree as an illustration this point: Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and it puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.” (Matthew 24:32, 33) The fig tree’s bright-green leaves are a noticeable and unmistakable harbinger of summer. Likewise, Jesus’ great prophecy recorded in Matthew chapter 24, Mark chapter 13, and Luke chapter 21 provides clear evidence of his presence now in heavenly Kingdom power.
Since we are living at such a crucial time in history, surely we want to learn from the fig tree. If we do so and keep awake spiritually, we have the hope of experiencing the fulfillment of the grand promise: “They will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble; for the very mouth of Jehovah of armies has spoken it.”
H. B. Tristram, a naturalist who visited the Bible lands in the middle of the 19th century, observed that the local people still used a poultice of figs for treating boils.
This incident took place near the village of Bethphage. Its name means “House of the Early Figs.” This may indicate that the area was known for producing good crops of early figs.