In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel declared that the Lord will pluck a tender shoot from the highest branch of the cedar and will transplant it on a high mountain: “On the mountain height of Israel will plant it. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Every small bird will nest under it, all kinds of winged birds will dwell in the shade of its branches” (Ez. 17:23).
The tree is a symbol of Israel and the Davidic dynasty. The prophet teaches that both will be restored after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, after the exile to Babylon. Similarly, the Lord said through the prophet Hosea: “I will be like the dew for Israel: he will blossom like the lily; He will strike root like the Lebanon cedar, and his shoots will go forth. His splendor will be like the olive tree and his fragrance like Lebanon cedar” (Hos. 14:6). It also brings to mind the messianic prophesy of Isaiah: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Is. 11:1).
The Bible mentions trees frequently. We think of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden: “Out of the ground the Lord God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). In Christian faith, because we ate of the fruit of that tree, we needed the tree of cross. Ex. 15:25 may be seen as a foreshadowing of that tree. Three days after crossing the Red Sea and travelling through the desert, the people had a legitimate complaint: “As the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” he cried out to the Lord, who pointed out to him a piece of wood. When he threw it into the water, the water became fresh. It was here that God, in making statutes and ordinances for them, put them to the test” (Ex. 15:25).
The tree also came to symbolize the Torah. Prov. 3:18, speaking of wisdom, is applied to the Torah and, in the Jewish liturgy, is sung when, after the reading, the Torah is put back in the ark: “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace; She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and those who hold her fast are happy.”
Of one who meditates on God’s word, the Psalmist sings: “He is like a tree, planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers.”
The righteous will be like a fruitful olive tree: “But I, like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God, I trust in God’s mercy forever and ever” (Ps. 52:10). For those of us who are no longer young, there’s this: “The just shall flourish like the palm tree, shall grow like a cedar of Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall bear fruit even in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Ps. 92:13-15).
It is no wonder that trees also symbolize joy. Sometime this summer, look at the green trees and join in the words of the Psalmist: “Let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice” (Ps. 96:12). It’s good in the fall, too, when the trees change color, or in the winter, when the branches are filled with snow, or in the spring, when the leaves bud forth.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition ©2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.