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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Part II: Three Trees: and Israel's History

Chapter 1

History in Three Dimensions

     SOMEWHERE I have read the statement that the life of any child of God today may be as luminously punctuated by divine interferences as were the lives of any of the saints of the Old Testament. And we are persuaded that God's hand is always poised over the natural order of things to interject a supernatural order, whenever necessary. Thus we are aware that we live in two kingdoms: that we take part in events which are either natural or supernatural -- the temporal and worldly, the spiritual and heavenly.
     The life of every individual can be viewed as a miniature of the life of his own society and even of the civilization of which he is a part. Just as he has a birth, a childhood, a blossoming forth into an age of great aspirations, a plateau of compromise, and a time of retreat and coming to an end, so it seems to be with a society or a civilization This has been called a cyclic or organic view of history: it was Toynbee's view, as it was Spengler's, and Vico's before that. Each civilization is seen as living and growing, decaying and dying, like an organism.
     This is history seen from one point of view only, the secular. With respect to the individual, those who have experienced a rebirth into a new realm have coincidentally another kind of history entirely, a history which is written largely in secret, a history known chiefly and known fully only to God. This is a spiritual history. It too has a birth and a growth -- but there is no death. Now and then some remarkable individual who is a Christian also happens to be prominent in national or international affairs. When the time is appropriate, his personal history may appear in print in Who's Who or a similar work. In the majority of cases no recognition whatever will be accorded to the fact that he was a child of God. Who's Who gives one history, the record which God keeps will give another one.
     Nations as a whole may also be viewed as having two kinds of

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history which are experienced concurrently. Along with the secular there is a spiritual history which is not usually clearly identified and sometimes not even recognized. However, there was one nation whose spiritual history required even greater attention than their political history. This is the nation Israel. Indeed, in its influence upon the world thus far their political history has been comparatively slight. It is really their spiritual history which has had a transforming influence upon mankind.
     All nations have a secular history, but only those nations which have experienced something of a true spiritual awakening have had a spiritual history. Many African peoples, for example, achieved nationhood in the past, long before missionaries reached them to effect any kind of spiritual awakening, and they therefore enjoyed a national history but not a spiritual one. But there is a third kind of history which they experienced and which would be the proper subject of study for those interested in their religious beliefs and practices. Thus it seems necessary to recognize that both individuals and nations may have three distinctly different kinds of history: a secular or worldly history; a spiritual history which results from a genuine rebirth of a number of its citizens; and a religious history which reflects something that seems to be deeply rooted in human nature and is probably found in every society, namely, a recognition of a supernatural and largely invisible world impinging upon our own. The religious sense in man seems to be virtually universal.
     This instinct for religion is so deeply ingrained in man that he seems unable to continue for long without organizing some sort of structured system of belief and ritual suited to his level of sophistication. In some societies this organization looms so large that it seems to eclipse most other facets of his culture, as it did in some Central America societies. Even when this occurs, historians find it quite possible to observe at least two concurrent streams of events, the secular and the religious. Only when missionaries have introduced the Christian faith and a representative Body of Christ has been divinely implanted in the society does it become proper to speak of a third stream of events; events which form the subject matter of a spiritual history.
     It is conceivable that there could be a society with a secular history but without either a religious or a spiritual history. The Indus Valley culture seemed to have had no temples, and there is little if anything to indicate organized religion: and it seems exceedingly doubtful that there could have been any group of people in their midst who had experienced a spiritual awakening but left no

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evidence in their homes of their faith. We may perhaps have some cultures whose secular history has almost been submerged in their religious preoccupation. This seems to have been true of certain Central America cultures. By contrast, we may have had some civilizations whose religious history was overwhelmed by secular preoccupation, such as seems to have been the case in the Indus Valley.
     A purely spiritual society has never existed, except perhaps for a few days after Pentecost and on a very small scale. But very quickly finances and other problems necessitated the creation of a kind of Christian Civil Service to handle these more temporal concerns and for the "serving of tables" (Acts 6:2), thus preserving the secular component.
     Such circumstances illustrate the fact that the history of a society can be viewed from any one or from all three of these perspectives. There is little difficulty in conveying what we mean by secular history and what we mean by spiritual history, but it is not quite so easy to make clear in what sense the religious history of people is to be distinguished from both their spiritual and their secular history.
     In what way is it distinct? It is distinct in this regard, that it is poised between the spiritual and the worldly, claiming exemptions from the civil where these are unwelcome, but demanding recognition in these very same areas to compensate for its failure to reach the spiritual. Throughout the Christian era, I think, this has been particularly true of the Roman Catholic Church. Although it is possible to write the spiritual history of a people with almost no reference to their secular history (as tends to be done in missionary books), and though it is also possible to write a fairly complete secular history of some nations with virtually no reference to their spiritual history (as Gibbon did in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), it is quite impossible to isolate the religious history from the secular history, simply because it ultimately depends upon it for continued existence. Yet it has certain qualities about it which have led students of ethnology to lump together relevant religious data into a department or by itself. In other words, this third category of history -- the religious -- is a real one, yet it seems to be inseparably bound to the secular, even though it may have had a spiritual beginning.
     While we may catalogue some of the components of a nation's secular history -- their laws, their social customs, their kings and princes, their wars, their economics, their architectural forms, their

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language -- we may also catalogue the subject matter which would form the basis of a religious history of a people. It would comprise a study of the birth, growth, elaboration, and perhaps ultimate decay of their superstitions, their priesthood, their forms and places of worship, their sacred literature, their formalized creeds, their initiation ceremonies, and their treatment of the dead. From this it will be seen that there is no necessary connection with the secular history that is concurrent, but in the nature of the case, the maintenance and preservation of many of these elements is constantly being aided or challenged by civil authority; because these elements are rooted in human nature rather than in God Himself, these challenges have to be met usually by what must be termed worldly means. By contrast, the spiritual because it is rooted in God and not in society is paradoxically preserved by abandoning all dependence upon society. In its ideal formulation it thus ceases to be secular in any sense, and its history becomes an entirely independent one, though it is by no means without influence upon the course of secular history. This is beautifully illustrated in the case of the Lord Himself, who was in no wise disturbed by Pilate's questioning his claim to be a King, because His kingdom is not of this world, though it has a tremendous impact upon it.
     The history of Israel is a unique one, for they have not been numbered among the nations as an ordinary people (Numbers 23:9). Thus, while these three kinds of historical perspective, generally speaking, apply to all nations which have had any spiritual life, they apply uniquely to Israel and are uniquely so treated in Scripture. Here the distinction between Israel's temporal history, their religious history, and their spiritual history is absolutely clear. Israel's birth as a nation in the Exodus, the establishment of the people in a homeland, the building of a capital city, the founding of a monarchy, the triumphs and tragedies of their engagements with neighbouring people, their captivity and near annihilation, their restoration and struggles under the Roman emperors, their one great national opportunity which they failed to recognize and their subsequent national suicide and dispersion throughout the world -- all these are properly part and parcel of their temporal history as a nation. The circumstances surrounding the specialized training of Moses, the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the building of the Temple in the glorious reign of Solomon, the gradual accumulation of a collection of sacred writings, the study of which led in time to the formation of synagogues and schools and a vast body of religious tradition and ordinance, the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple,

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the development of distinctly opposed religious sects, the religious philosophy which led to many of the conflicts with Rome, the blindness of the leaders in failing to perceive what was truly spiritual, and the final destruction of the Temple under Titus in A.D. 70 -- all these (as well as the subsequent development of synagogues outside the Holy Land) would form the appropriate materials for a religious history of Israel.
     But throughout, there runs another thread which is evanescent and ill-defined, except insofar as it is always related to a minority -- termed not infrequently the Remnant -- whose real history is truly known only to God. It is illustrated by the seven thousand in Elijah's day who had not bowed the knee to Baal. We do not know of what tribe they were, whether they were poor or rich, nor even what happened to them subsequently. They had no social structure that would have set them off as a sect, for Elijah, with his profound knowledge of what was going on in his country was apparently quite unaware of them. They were individuals known to the Lord. They had a history all right, but the record of it was not kept here. Throughout the whole of Old Testament times such people were to be found, for God never left Himself without this witness. Enoch, who "walked with God," was one of these.
     Because Scripture takes into account these three dimensions in dealing with Israel's history, this composite is set forth symbolically by the use of trees: the vine to portray Israel's national history, the olive tree to portray her spiritual history, and the fig tree to portray her religious history. These three trees are used in this symbolic sense, not merely in parables where they are hypothetical, but in circumstances where the references to them are strictly historical, where the writer has in view real trees that existed at the time of writing. Let us examine what Scripture has to say about these three trees.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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