Trees in the House of God: where they belong

Ancient church leaders posed deep questions about the relationship between philosophy and Christianity when they said, “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” I’m asking something more figurative. What does the Jerusalem Temple have to do with Gardens ‘R’ Us? Or perhaps more precisely, what does the Lord’s temple have to do with gardens, and what does that have to with us?

Do you see yourself as a tree planted in the temple of the Lord?

Even if you’ve read the previous article, you might suggest that this metaphor is over-the-top, over-cooked, over-mixed, or, dare I say, flowery and out-on-a-limb. Quaint perhaps, but strange.

What do trees have to do with God’s temple? Are we talking about pot plants near the Most Holy Place?

A worshipper in the temple? Yes.

A tree planted by God’s life-giving waters? Yes.

But not the two mixed up.

You might question my Biblical Theology. Now that Christ has come, and the physical temple does not exist, why would I use that language?

You might question my over-confident eschatology and perfectionism. I could understand how someone could say that in the New Creation, when all is right and good, we’ll be with God like this, but now when there are evil forces, deep suffering, and my own personal sin ruining everything, can we really claim to be trees in the temple of the Lord?

However, I will argue that this imagery fits very naturally in main-stream temple theology. The Garden of Eden and the temple point to the same reality. Arboreal designs are prominent features of the Jerusalem temple, and sanctuary-planting imagery features in its song-book. Most importantly, our Lord Jesus Christ is that new temple of which we are also a part. Our confidence to be part of that temple is based on his work.

God’s Holy Garden Intention For His People

When the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, Moses blended garden and sacred imagery.

You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary … (Ex. 15:17)

What was true of Mount Sinai, where once a bush burned, would also be true of the portable tabernacle, and most especially of Mount Zion. God’s sanctuary would be in their midst and Israel would be planted around it.

So, when Balaam was under the control of the Holy Spirit, God’s view of Israel was lush, botanic, and thoroughly Edenic.

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the LORD has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. (Num 24:5-6)

God had planted the Garden of Eden and now he is planting his people Israel in his sacred place.

With this in mind, Paul’s language in the New Testament is quite natural. He moves from planting, watering and growing, to buildings, and to God’s temple.  “You are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:9)

Singing about being a tree in the temple

I remember being a tree in a musical. I doubt that decision was a theological choice. Yet God casts us this way.

In the last article, we already saw David describe himself as a “green olive tree in the house of God” (Psa. 52:8). But there is also a Sabbath day song that bring a chorus to echo David’s solo. All God’s people are like fruitful and strong trees planted in God’s house (Psa. 92:12-15).

The song leader, and all those who join the Psalm, speak confidently with this language, to God. In real world situations of suffering, pain and defiance, come what may, they stand firm and grow, flourishing and thankful in the presence of the Lord. This forest grows best in the temple.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree

and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

They are planted in the house of the LORD;

they flourish in the courts of our God.

They still bear fruit in old age;

they are ever full of sap and green,

to declare that the LORD is upright;

he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psa. 92:12-15)

Before we move on, notice the wonderful truth about fruitfulness into old age! For these old trees, age cannot weary them. The righteous don’t dry up and lose fecundity. The sap always flows. Middle-age, menopause, retirement, and infirmity does not slow down the productivity in God’s sight. If we stay in the Lord, we keep producing. And that fruit is lips that bring God’s praise (Psa 92:15; cf. Heb. 13:15).

Palm trees and cedars are symbolic of thriving and strength respectively. The same trees mentioned by Balaam, both are focused on here (Num. 24:5-6; Psa, 92:12-15). Instead of being found in Lebanon and the river Jordan, these trees are in the house of God. This is not surprising. Not only are believers fruitful and strengthened in the Lord alone, these are the two most visible trees in Solomon’s physical and Ezekiel’s prophetic temple.

The Temple Design is Forest

The doors leading into the temple and its most holy place were especially designed with palms. Interestingly, the descriptions of the temple in Kings and Ezekiel do not mention a curtain at all. Only a veil.

The emphasis, however,  is on the design of the doors (2 Chr. 3:14; 4:22). In Revelation, it is that door which stands open to the throne room of God (Rev. 4:1-2).

For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive-wood; the lintel and the doorposts were five-sided. He covered the two doors of olive-wood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He overlaid them with gold and spread gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees. (1 Ki. 6:31-32)

From the floor to above the door, cherubim and palm trees were carved; similarly the wall of the nave. (Ezekiel 41:20)

Palms were carved on all the doors and walls and cedar timber covered every internal surface: the floor, the walls and the ceiling, overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:15-18). “All was cedar; no stone was seen”(1 Kings 6:18).

So a worshipper at the temple would see palms carved into the door to the temple, even into the most holy place, and they would be in a room built by cedar. Strength and fruitfulness are symbols of the physical temple.

Little wonder that the Psalmist would choose these trees for his song. The righteous are like the trees that make up the temple.

All faithful Israelites know they must remain in the house of God, wherever they go.

Is the New Covenant Temple also a Forest?

Are there links when Jesus approaches Jerusalem? John’s Gospel does not describe any visit to the temple building before the crucifixion. However Jesus does visit the people. They speak the words of the blessings that were meant to emanate “from the house of the Lord” (Psa. 118:26).

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (Jn 12:12-13)

The book of Revelation describes the doors of heaven being opened! (Rev. 4:1) There is no building around the throne of God, but instead the people themselves are that temple and the they employ a similar symbolism.

… a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands … (Rev. 7:9)

Believers are like the stones that make up the New Covenant temple, but even in the Old Testament they were also like the trees that adorned the temple.  Or perhaps the imagery goes the other way around. The reality is imprinted on the shadow.

Plants planted in the Presence of God

There are so many other avenues to explore, including the feasts of the tabernacles, the Edenic language of the New Jerusalem, arrogant leaders described as cedars disconnected from God and also the false worship of idols in sacred groves and holy trees.

What I notice now is how much organic imagery there is in the Bible. People are plants growing before God.

  • The book of Psalms opens with believers described like fruitful and strong trees, and closes with the sanctuary praising God (Psa. 1:3; Psa. 150:1). Trees and temple start and finish the song-book, and at least two bring these themes together (Psa. 52, 92).
  • Those in Zion will move from mourning to gladness, and will be known as “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isa. 61:3). On that mountain of the temple, what Moses sung about will happen to all who claim his name (Ex. 15:17).
  • The imagery of the Messiah is also a mix of the botanic and theological proximity. “He grew up before him [the Lord] like a young plant” (Isa. 53:2). Surely Christ is the beginning of the New Temple, God’s planting.

Remember what we saw in the last article. In face of everything, tragedy and attack, if you are in Christ, you are strong.

There are two approaches to forests and temples. For most they are places to visit, but for God’s people, they are places to stay.

Join your place in the house of the Lord, rooted and established in Christ and bearing fruit into old age.

You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary.  (Ex. 15:17)

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Col. 2:6-7)

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