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Part II: Three Trees: and Israel's
The Olive and Israel's Spiritual History
WITH the vine which has a horizontal growth, the olive grows
vertically toward heaven. That the olive tree is associated symbolically
with the spiritual history of Israel is stated with equal explicitness
in Scripture. The choice of such a tree is most appropriate,
for it is from its fruit that olive oil is obtained, and this
is the oil of anointing which symbolizes the anointing of the
The very first mention of the tree
is, not unexpectedly, in connection with the restoration of the
earth after the Flood. Noah sends out a dove, and the dove returns
with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:10,11). Both the dove and the leaf
reinforce the spiritual implications, the emergence of new life.
Because God has always left Himself with some witness in Israel
in times of direst judgment, the prophets in foretelling what
would happen to the nation because of their disobedience speak
of the cutting down of the vine and the fig tree and their destruction
in the land; but never is it stated that the olive tree will
suffer such total uprooting. Thus Jeremiah, the prophet of doom,
added the warning (in Jeremiah 11:16) that although the green
olive would suffer in this coming judgment, he does not speak
of its total destruction, but warns only that the branches of
it will be broken.
This seems to be the basis of the
simile used by Paul in Romans 11:17-27:
1 of 4
And if some of the branches
be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted
in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness
of the olive tree;
Boast not against the branches.
But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
Thou wilt say then, The branches
were broken off, that I might be grafted in.
Well; because of unbelief they were broken
off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear:
For if God spared not the natural
branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
Behold therefore the goodness and
severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee,
goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also
shalt be cut off.
And they also, if they abide not
still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft
them in again.
For if thou wert cut out of the
olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary
to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these which
be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
For I would not, brethren, that
ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise
in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel,
until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.
And so all Israel shall be saved:
as it is written; There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer,
and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
For this is my covenant unto them,
when I shall take away their sins.
It is evident
from this passage that there is a time of restoration coming,
a time in which the spiritual life of Israel will be renewed
just as their national life will be renewed. The olive tree will
become wholly itself again, and the vine will once more bear
its fruit as originally planned. Israel will become the head
of the nations: and Israel will be the spiritual centre of all
It may be argued that Paul says
to the Romans that the olive tree suffered the loss of some of
its branches because of their unbelief, and that this would imply
that the olive tree is simply an alternative symbol for Israel
as a nation, since one would not expect unbelief among "believers."
The force of this argument seems strong enough, until one observes
that Paul warns the believers to whom he is writing that they
too might suffer the same fate (verses 20-22). Can a believer
lose his spiritual birthright? There are some who believe this
possible. Personally I rest in the assurance that what the Lord
does, He does forever (Ecclesiastes 3:14) and that the believer
is eternally secure. I think there is another kind of "cutting
off" which a believer may, however, suffer at the hand of
God: this is his removal, the foreclosure of his continuance
on earth. In fact, the New Testament is full of passages which
carry a warning of this possibility to those who are Christians.
For example, consider the case
of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3,4). That these two had become
Christians is surely to be inferred from the fact that Peter
accused them of lying to the Holy Spirit and to God. In fact,
they are illustrations of how we who are Christians may be judged
now in order that we may not need to be judged when the world
is (1 Corinthians 11:32). It is possible, then, for a child of
see everything that he
has done perish in the flames of God's examination, yet even
so (and here are the most comforting words) he himself shall
be saved (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
In 1 Corinthians 11:29,30 Paul
speaks of those who defiled the Lord's Table and brought condemnation
on themselves, for which very cause "many sleep." Again,
in 1 Corinthians 3:17 the same writer remarks, "If any man
defile the Temple of God, him shall God destroy." There
were times when the saints were admonished to see that this occurred.
In certain circumstances it was their duty "to deliver such
an one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit
may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians
It was possible, in fact, for a
mature Christian to do something which was safe for himself but
could not safely be copied by a weaker Christian who, being defiled,
would "perish" (1 Corinthians 8:11). Paul himself said
one should not eat any food if the example created thereby endangered
the life of a brother in Christ (Romans 14:15). It is good to
submit to the chastening of God when we go astray and to accept
His correction -- and live (Hebrews 12:9). Sometimes we are too
blind to see the reasons why we are being chastened, until a
brother points them out to us. James says that such a brother
"may save a soul from death" (5:19,20). Remember that
in this passage it is a brother in the Lord who is being persuaded
to repent of his ways, and the death which he escapes by his
action is a physical death, a premature taking home.
I believe there are circumstances
in which the waywardness of a child of God reaches such disastrous
proportions that the Lord is left no alternative but to remove
him "that his soul may be saved." Other saints may
be praying for such a one, but John says there is a point of
no return: there is a "sin unto death" for which prayer
is useless (1 John 5:16,17). Yet he hastened to add, because
we are all failing in one way or another, that the case is exceptional
and God is long-suffering, and there is sin which does not lead
to such a drastic termination: "there is sin that is not
It should once more be emphasized
here that such "cutting off" when applied to believers
does not in the least imply a loss of salvation. I know there
is controversy on this issue, but for myself eternal security
is part of the believer's heritage. This "cutting off"
has to do solely with physical life. Such people as Ananias and
Sapphira were removed, taken home, to prevent an injury to the
Body of Christ which it could not at that time possibly sustain.
Moreover, in these passages it is not always unbelief that brings
disaster; sometimes it is disobedience in some specific matter;
sometimes it is simply
irreverence. In any case, it appears that when the body of believers
was small, God did not allow the continued existence of Christians
who were defiling or might defile the church. They were removed.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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To return to the symbolism of this
brief survey, these were branches of the olive "cut off."
The olive tree was a spiritual organism, and though these branches
were properly part of the tree, they had become diseased and
endangered its life.
In Zechariah 4:11-14 and again
in Revelation 11:4, two olive trees symbolize two anointed ones,
two spiritual beings who stood before the Lord.
In Psalm 52:8 David likens himself
to an olive tree, and in Psalm 128:3 he speaks of the children
of a godly household as being olive plants round about the table.
The olive tree is a slow-growing
tree -- unlike the vine -- requiring years of patient labour
before reaching full fruitfulness. Consequently its growth implies
a certain degree of settledness and stability in the community,
and hence its association with the idea of peace. The beauty
of the tree is referred to in Jeremiah 11:16 and in Hosea 14:6
and yet -- and surely this is deeply significant -- the most
fruitful of these trees are the product of bare and rocky ground.
The cultivation of them requires a great deal of attention, constant
pruning is necessary, and fruit comes very late in the year.
The oil itself was greatly used
for anointing, to freshen and revive (Psalm 23:5 and Matthew
6:17), and it was used for the healing of wounds. A third important
use was for illumination (Matthew 25:3). Thus it provided comfort,
healing, and light. Moreover, olive wood was much valued for
fuel. It is no wonder, therefore, that God chose the olive to
stand for the spiritual element in Israel's history.
Although it is not explicitly stated
in Genesis, I think it quite possible that the Tree of Life (whose
leaves are for healing -- Revelation 22:2) may have been an olive