A STUDY OF THE OLIVE TREE, THE FIG TREE AND THE VINE
We read in Judges nine of the olive tree, the fig tree, the vine and the bramble. Some believe that these trees represent Israel. Furthermore, in a discussion of Romans 11, Judges nine is often suggested as the Scriptural evidence that the olive tree of Romans 11 represents Israel. In a discussion of Matt. 24 Judges nine is often suggested for the Scriptural evidence that the fig tree represents Israel. And in a discussion of Jn. 15 Judges nine is often suggested as the Scriptural evidence that the vine represents Israel.
As the reader continues in this study he/she will see the Scriptural evidence from the immediate context that in Rom. 11 the olive tree does represent Israel, and in Matt. 24 the fig tree does represent Israel. But the vine of Jn. 15 does not represent Israel. But my point is that Judges nine is not the appropriate passage to prove that the olive and fig trees represent Israel because in Judges nine they do not represent Israel.
In short, I am suggesting that by using the wrong Old Testament passage to prove a truth, we do not serve the truth. We will discuss this issue in the following order.
THE TREES OF JUDGES NINE
THE OLIVE TREE
THE FIG TREE
THE TREES OF JUDGES NINE
The ninth chapter of Judges describes the episode in which Abimelech went to the citizens of Shechem wanting to be be made king over them. In securing this position, Abimelech and his followers put to death all except one of Abimelech’s brothers. His brother Jotham had hidden himself and was the only brother not killed.
We read Jotham’s parable in verses 8-15, “The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, ‘Reign thou over us.’ But the olive tree said unto them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come thou, and reign over us’. But the fig tree said unto them, ‘Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?’ Then said the trees unto the vine, ‘Come thou, and reign over us.’ and the vine said unto them, ‘Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?’ Then said all the trees unto the bramble, ‘Come thou, and reign over us.’ And the bramble said unto the trees, ‘If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow; and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon'”.
Every parable in the Bible has a specific point. Sometimes the point is given in the context and sometimes, especially when the point is quite obvious, the point is not recorded. Also, in some parables each item of the parable represents some thing or some one. But where the point is made without each item representing some one or some thing, some items do not represent anything or anyone. (Please see the paper on the parables for the Scriptural evidence of that statement.)
Having said that, let us consider the context of this parable in order to determine what the point of the parable is. In my opinion, the point is quite obvious. The olive tree, the fig tree, the vine and the bramble represent a steady regression as each was asked to reign. Obviously, the bramble represents Abimelech, as it was he the men of Shechem made king over them. But it is not, in my opinion, necessary for the olive tree, or the fig tree or the vine to represent any thing in particular. Again the point of the parable is the regression from one to the other till they came to the lowliest, i.e. the bramble.
One thing is very clear, the parable has to do with the choosing of a king to reign over Shechem. There is absolutely no hint of any of these trees in the parable representing Israel. Therefore, to suggest Judges nine as a cross reference to other passages concerning the olive tree, the fig tree or the vine as representing Israel is, in my opinion, not serving the cause of truth.
THE OLIVE TREE
Jer. 11:16-17 reads, “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. 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.…”.
In this context it is clear the olive tree is a metaphor for Israel.
The olive tree is also used as a metaphor for Israel in Rom. 11. How do we know that? We know that from the immediate context. We read in Rom. 11:24, “….how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree“. The natural branches were, of course, Israelites. How do we know that the natural branches were Israelites? We read in verse 13 that Paul was speaking to Gentiles, “For I speak to you Gentiles….”. Then in verse 17 we read, “….and thou (Gentiles) being a wild olive tree….”. If the Gentiles were the “wild olive tree, obviously Israel was the good olive tree. Therefore, this passage could not be more clear; the good olive tree represents Israel.
THE FIG TREE
“I will surely consume them, saith the Lord: there shall be no grapes on the vines, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things that I have given them shall pass away from them”. This is a prophecy of the coming seventy year captivity of Israel. Note verse 12b, “therefore shall they fall among them that fall: in the time of their visitation they shall be cast down, saith the Lord”.
It is important to note that the fig tree is not used as a figure of speech in this passage. It is a prophecy of a literal event, i.e. that the fig tree will not bear fruit. Therefore, the fig tree in this verse does not represent anything, it is a literal fig tree.
MARK 11:12-14 AND 20-22
Mark 11:1-11 describes Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The next day Christ cursed the fig tree. We read in Mark 11:12-14, “And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, He was hungry: and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came, if haply He might find any thing thereon: (and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves): for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, ‘No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever.’ And His disciples heard it” (Mark 11:12-14).
The first thing we must understand is that the Greek phrase translated “for ever” is “eis ton aiona” and should be translated “for the age“.
The next event that is recorded is the scene at the temple in which our Lord overturned the tables. Then we read in verses 20-22, “And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto Him, ‘Master, behold the fig tree which Thou cursedst is withered away’. And Jesus answering saith unto them, ‘Have faith in God'”.
We are now ready to determine why Christ cursed the fig tree. Much has been written about what the tree represents. But the event described here is not a parable. That is to say, if Christ had told a parable it may (but not always) be helpful to determine what each item in the parable represents. But again, this is not a parable it is a description of a literal event.
But the event is significant. So the question should be, “what is the significance of this event”? We must answer that question from Scripture, and in my opinion, it is answered from the immediate context. There are three phrases in the recording of this event which lead me to conclude that the event is a prophecy concerning coming events. Those three phrases are, 1) “for the time of figs was not yet” 2) “for the age”, (“no man shall eat fruit of it for the age”) and 3) our Lord’s statement to His disciples, “have faith in God”.
Let us consider the first, “for the time of figs was not yet”. Here we are told that there were leaves on the fig tree, but no fruit. There was no fruit because it wasn’t time for the tree to bear fruit. I believe the significance of this phrase is found in the fact that Christ knew that His earthly ministry was coming to an end, i.e. He knew that within a few days He would be crucified. That crucifixion would of course, have monumental repercussions, one of which was that despite Israel’s welcoming of Christ as their King the previous day, Christ knew that the millennial reign was not going to be established in the immediate future. I believe that Christ cursed the fig tree as a prophecy to say that just as it was not time for fruit on the fig tree, so too it was not time for the long awaited millennial reign.
Let us consider the second phrase that I believe to be significant, i.e. “no man shall eat fruit of thee hereafter for the age”. What age? That is to say, for how long shall this tree not bear fruit? The answer to that is, in my opinion, up to the age of the millennium. In other words, no man will enjoy millennial blessings until the millennium is established. But because Christ was soon to be crucified, the “fruit” of His earthly ministry would not be enjoyed until it is time, i.e. until His millennial reign.
Now let us consider the third phrase I believe is significant, “have faith in God”. How does this comment fit into the fact that the tree had been cursed? I believe that it points again to Christ knowing that He would soon be crucified, and that the disciples would need to remember His words, as He lay dead in the grave for three days and three nights.
In short, the cursing of the fig tree was a prophecy that teaches that just as the time of the fig tree to bear fruit was “not yet”, so too the time of the millennial reign was “not yet”. The time of the millennium was “not yet” because despite the fact that the multitudes had welcomed their King into Jerusalem just the day before, Christ knew that He would soon be killed by them.
THE PARABLE OF THE FIG TREE (Matthew 24:32-33)
“Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: so likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.”
The disciples had asked in verse 3, “what shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the age”. The point of the parable is that just as the sign of summer being near is the leaves on the fig tree, so all the things Christ told the disciples in the entire chapter are signs that the end of the age is near.
But what is important in this study is that the fig tree does not represent Israel.
THE PARABLE OF THE FIG TREE IN THE VINEYARD (Luke 13:6-9)
“He spake also this parable; ‘A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, ‘Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?’ And he answering said unto him, ‘Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down'” (Luke 13:6-9).
Does this parable tell us of the setting aside of Israel? I believe that the context will answer that question.
To begin, let us determine to whom Christ was speaking when He spoke this parable. If He was speaking to the leaders of the nation that would be an indication that the fig tree in the parable represented the nation of Israel. We have to go all the way back to Luke11:37-54 in order to determine to whom the parable was spoken. We read, for example, in verse 43, “Woe unto you Pharisees”, and in verse 44, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees“. So in these verses it is clear that Christ was speaking to the leaders of Israel.
But then in Luke 12:1 we read, “In the meantime, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people“. The phrase, “in the meantime” implies a different audience, especially when we read of the “multitude of people” that had gathered. And in the following verse “He began to say unto His disciples“. Then in 12:13 we read, “And one of the company said unto Him……and He said unto him”, i.e. one of the company who made up the “multitude of people”. In verse 22 we read, “And He said unto His disciples…“. And in 12:54 we read, “And He said also unto the people....”. Then in 13:1 we read, “there were present at that season some that told Him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled….”.
There is no question that when Christ spoke the parable of the fig tree He was speaking not to the leaders of Israel but to His disciples and to the people. This certainly does suggest, absent any Scriptural evidence to the contrary, that the fig tree does not represent Israel. Let us continue in the context for further clues as to whether the fig tree of the parable represents Israel.
In verses 1-3 Christ made the point that those who Pilate killed in Galilee were not worse sinners than other Galileans. And in verses 4-5 He made the point that those who died in an accident in Jerusalem were not worse sinners than the others of Jerusalem. In both passages Christ ended by saying, “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (see verse 3 and verse 5). Given that Christ was speaking to individual people about how they too may “perish”, I believe that this context also points to the following parable as being addressed to individuals rather than to the nation as a whole.
As we have seen, the Lord’s point in verses 1-5 is that they must repent before they die. In fact, given that the ones who died did so unexpectedly, i.e. through murder and an accident, I believe we may take that one step further and conclude that Christ was saying that they might die at any time, i.e. the time may be short.
So Christ spoke the parable of the fig tree to His disciples and to the people. And His point in the verses immediately preceding the parable was that they must repent, lest they perish, while there is still time to do so.
We are now ready to consider the parable itself. I believe that we may concludce that the three years referred to in the parable was the three years of Christ’s earthly ministry. That would mean that the parable tells us that Christ was dissatisfied with the lack of fruit during His earthly ministry, but that He was willing to allow more time so that all who would repent would do so that they not perish.
This may seem like a very simplistic meaning to a parable to which many have attributed great dispensational importance, but it is taken from the immediate context and is in keeping with the context.
As we saw in regard to the fig tree, it is sometimes used to represent Israel, but other times it is not. So too, we will see in regards to the vine, it is sometimes used to represent Israel, but that does not mean that every time we read of the vine as a metaphor, that the vine represents Israel. We will start our study of the vine when used as a metaphor with the Old Testament.
“Now will I sing to My wellbeloved a song of My beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill; and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah judge, I pray you, betwixt Me and My vineyard. What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done in it: wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to My vineyard; I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down; and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant....”.
The phrase “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant” in verse 7 leaves absolutely no doubt that in this particular passage the vineyard and the vine represent Israel and Judah respectively.
“Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto Me?”
Here again, it is clear that Israel is represented by a vine.
“Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images”.
The phrase, “”Israel is an empty vine” tells us without doubt that in this passage, the vine represents Israel.
THE VINE OF JOHN 15
We come now to the New Testament, where we read in John 15 of the vine. Jn. 15:1-2 reads, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the Husbandman. Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit”.
In the opening phrase of this chapter , i.e. “I am the true vine”, we are told quite specifically that it is Christ, not Israel that is represented by the vine.
It is equally obvious that when our Lord said, “I am the true vine” that He was not speaking literally, because He was not a vine, He was a Man. The “vine” therefore is a metaphor. As is true of all figures of speech, this metaphor enhances the truth for which the metaphor was used. What is that truth that is enhanced by the metaphor of the vine? The answer to that question is given quite specifically by our Lord and recorded in verses 4-5, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without Me ye can do nothing”. The truth that is enhanced by the metaphor of the vine is put most succinctly in the phrase, ” for without Me ye can do nothing”.
It is also important to know who is represented by the branches. I suggest that that question is answered once we determine what Christ meant by the “fruit” of the branches. The fruit of the branches can be one of two things. It can be, 1) the fruit of the spirit, or it can be 2) the fruit of one’s labors. Gal. 5:22 speaks of the fruits of the spirit, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith…”. The more immediate context gives us an example of the fruit of one’s labour. We read in Jn. 15:16, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain….”. Note the phrase, “that ye should go”. Going is not required to bring forth the fruits of the spirit. Therefore, I believe the most logical conclusion is that the fruits of the vine refers to the fruits of one’s labor, not to the fruits of the holy spirit.
The context will give the same answer to the question as to which fruit is meant in John 15. This chapter is part of a long discourse given by our Lord to His disciples at the last supper, or rather to eleven of them, as Judas had departed earlier (see Jn. 13:30). Jn. 13:1 sets the time of His discourse, “Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father…..”. In other words, this discourse was given to the 11 at a time when Christ knew that His earthly ministry was coming to a rapid close.
Taking into consideration that chapter 15 comes in Christ’s last message to His disciples before the end of His earthly ministry, I believe it is more logical to conclude that the “fruits” of the branches of the vine are not the fruits of the spirit of Gal. 5, but the fruits of the labors of the disciples. That is to say, the ‘fruits” are those who the disciples “bring forth”.
We are now ready to discuss who is represented by the figure of the branches of the vine. We have already learned that Christ was speaking to the 11 disciples. The question is: was He speaking to them as followers or as believers. These 11 were, of course, both followers and believers, so the distinction is not that obvious. But we read in verse 16, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit”. In my opinion, the phrase “I have chosen you and ordained you” points to the conclusion that Christ was speaking to them primarily as His followers. That is to say, not every believer has been “chosen” and “ordained” to go bring forth fruit. It is true that all believers are expected to bring forth fruits of the holy spirit as listed in Gal. 5:22, but not all believers have been chosen and ordained to go forth to bring forth other believers. But there are a few more hints in the context that Christ is speaking to the 11 primarily as His followers.
We read in 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another”. It is true of course, that this can be said of believers, but it is significant that our Lord said that their love will show that they are His disciples, not that it will show that they are believers.
Consider also 15:8, “Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be My disciples“. Every word in the Bible is God inspired. Note that Christ did not say that their fruits showed that they were believers, but that their works showed that they were His disciples. I am suggesting that because the fruit of the branches represented those to whom the disciples were sent forth to reach for Christ, that the branches of the vine represented Christ’s disciples primarily as followers, not primarily as believers.
Having determined that the branches of the vine represented the followers of Christ, more specifically the disciples, we are now ready to consider who is represented by the branch of verse 2, the one that was cast away. I believe the branch of verse 2 was Judas. The branches represent Christ’s followers, Judas was a follower. Consider also verse 3, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you”. Compare that with Jn. 13:10-11, “……and ye are not all clean. For He knew who should betray Him; therefore said He, ‘Ye are not all clean'”. In my opinion there is an implied reference in this comparison to Judas, who was not clean and who was therefore, a branch that was taken out of the vine.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org