Monday, September 19, 2011

The olive tree

Note:  I preached Sunday morning on The Goodness and Severity of God from Romans 11:16-24.  Here is part of the introduction in which I reflected on Paul's illustration of the olive tree. 

In our passage today, Paul is going to introduce one central and vivid illustration or image and it is that of an olive tree. In Biblical times—as it still is today in the Mediterranean world—the olive was, as one Bible dictionary puts it, “the fruit par excellance; either the fresh fruit or its oil found a place at every meal” (see Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 727). This same dictionary notes that the olive tree has a “characteristic gnarled trunk,” and it “thrives in the Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool, damp winters.” This tree is especially known for its heartiness and longevity. The article adds, “It can survive for a thousand years; some specimens are said to date from the Roman period.” It was used for food (Num 11:8), as fuel for lamps, as medicine (Isaiah 1:6), as anointing oil (1 Sam 10:1), in sacrifice (Gen 28:18; Lev 2:4), and its wood was used for furniture in the temple (1 Kings 6:23).

In Deuteronomy 8:8 the Promised Land itself is described as “a land of olive oil and honey” (NKJV). No doubt olive trees were ubiquitous in the Mediterranean. So, this illustration would have been very familiar and accessible to Paul’s first hearers.

The olive tree was also a symbol of fertility and blessing. In Psalm 128, David describes the household where the wife is like a fruitful vine with children popping up like olive plants around the table. And, as we shall see, there are also some places in the OT where Israel is symbolized as being like an olive tree that God is tending.

Indeed, in Paul’s illustration we are to assume that the God of the Bible himself is the Grand Gardener. As Jesus said in John 15:1: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman (vinedresser).” Now, in Paul’s analogy, ethnic Israel, the physical seed of Abraham, is going to be depicted as like a natural or pure olive tree. But due to Israel’s unfaithfulness, God, the husbandman of the olive plant, will choose to break off some of the diseased and dead branches. Paul, no doubt, is drawing upon some images from the OT. Compare:

KJV Jeremiah 11:16 The LORD called thy name, A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken. 17 For the LORD of hosts, that planted thee, hath pronounced evil against thee, for the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done against themselves to provoke me to anger in offering incense unto Baal.

In Jeremiah the context is an announcement of temporal judgment against Israel. Because of idolatry, God will allow Israel to be humbled among the nations, defeated by her enemies, her temple and holy city to be burned, and many branches to be killed or broken off.

Compare also this image in Hosea:

KJV Hosea 14:4 I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him. 5 I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. 6 His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree, and his smell as Lebanon. 7 They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon.

Jeremiah writes of what will happen to Israel, before her exile. Hosea writes of what will happen to Israel after her exile. He will heal their backsliding. He will allow the branches to grow and spread and be beautiful “as the olive tree.”  Jeremiah shows us the severity of God and Hosea the goodness (kindness).

Now, Paul is going to take this everyday image and this rich Biblical image, and he is going to add a unique and inspired interpretation that expands on this image. Not only has God been pleased to break off many dead branches but he has now also been pleased to graft into this pure olive tree a number of wild and uncultivated olive branches. By this, no doubt, Paul is providing a vivid picture of the Lord’s sovereign purpose according to election to include Gentiles among the one people of God. The analogy, however, does not even end there, but Paul also indicates that the Lord may also be pleased at some future time to graft again into the olive tree some of the natural branches like those that had been cut off.


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