- Who or What is the Olive Tree in Romans 11?, Pt.1
- Who or What is the Olive Tree in Romans 11 ?, Pt.2
- Who or What is the Olive Tree in Romans 11 ?, Pt.3
Written & illustrated by Brian R. Franco, used with permission
The Lord called your name, “A green olive tree, fair in fruit and form.” With the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire upon it, and its branches are broken. v16
Jeremiah 11:16 is the verse that is probably most known as a reference to Israel being an olive tree. I would completely agree, especially considering the context:
The Lord said to me: A conspiracy has been found among the men of Judah and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers who refused to hear My words. And they have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers. Therefore thus says the Lord, Surely, I will bring calamity upon them which they will not be able to escape. And though they cry to Me, I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they offer incense. But they will not save them at all in the time of their trouble. For according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah. And according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem you have set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense to Baal. Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them. For I will not hear them in the time that they cry to Me because of their trouble.
What right has My beloved in My house, seeing that she has done many lewd deeds? Can the sacrificial meat take away from you your disaster, so that you can rejoice while doing evil?
The Lord called your name, “A green olive tree, fair in fruit and form.” With the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire upon it, and its branches are broken. vv. 9 – 16
Over and over again we see Judah and Jerusalem, Israel being mentioned, leading up to the olive tree picture. However, this tree shows a very different image to the one in Romans:
With the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire upon it, and its branches are broken. For the Lord of Hosts, who planted you, has pronounced disaster against you, because of 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 to Baal. vv.16b – 17
Although similar in that, once again, Israel has rebelled against God and is being broken off, this tree has disaster pronounced against it and has been kindled by fire. I can’t imagine God bringing His Son into the world along with the gift of salvation, only to graft Gentiles into a doomed burning/burnt tree. You can’t simply take the “tree is Israel” part without also taking the “kindle with fire and doomed” part as well. However, this does seem to conflict with verse 16, so how can these facts be reconciled?
As far as I can tell, the following possibilities exist to explain this olive tree Jeremiah is presenting:
1) It’s possible Paul was simply using (probably knowingly) similar imagery to show Israel’s repeating sins, their unbelief, and how “their” tree is now being shared with the wild olive shoots. It does not mean they are the same tree, but any Jews listening to Paul’s letter would immediately identify with the illustration and come to a better understanding of what he’s trying to share. This will be further explored in a following section.
2) It’s also possible the olive trees are the same between Jeremiah and Romans. However it would be important to point out that the branches would still be receiving their life from the root which — perhaps uncoincidentally — is not said to be burned, broken, or chopped off (and as far as we can tell, will probably remain despite all its burnt/broken branches). Also important is the fact that no grafting is occurring at this point which means this tree only consists of natural branches.
In other words, if a plum tree is full of solely plum branches, of course it’s a plum tree. However in Romans, this tree’s identity must change considering the fact the majority (remember, only a remnant of the natural branches remain) of the branches are now wild. If the plum tree is full of peach branches then such a simple label is no longer possible. Sure, the root remains the same, but the tree as a whole is a little more unique than just “plum.” Simply put, I believe that if the trees really are meant to be the same, then it’s simply the fact that Israel was the only thing the tree consisted of, so the tree “was Israel.” In Romans, Gentiles are grafted in and unbelieving Israel is broken off, and therefore the tree is now “True Israel and Gentiles,” not just “True Israel.”
I find it difficult to say Jeremiah’s tree and Roman’s tree are the same though, considering the very different pictures I’m getting from each book. On one hand we have a tree which is being destroyed, burned, and cursed while in the other we have one where we see life being given to all those who choose to partake of the branch. So I want to analyze one other chapter which I feel actually does match what we see in Romans.
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that bears no fruit, He takes away. And every branch that bears fruit, He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean through the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, neither can you, unless you remain in Me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who remains in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit. For without Me you can do nothing. If a man does not remain in Me, he is thrown out as a branch and withers. And they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in Me, and My words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it shall be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. vv.1 – 8
Jesus lays out a clear picture here with some very familiar elements. He is the vine, while everyone else is a branch. Those that remain in Him will bear fruit (be sustained), those who do not remain (unbelief) is thrown out (broken off, withers, burned). Does this not match that rich, life-giving root shown in Romans much better?
We (believers) are branches, that much is clear. We derive our life, sustenance, and the ability to produce fruit from one source. This source is called a “root” in Romans and a “vine” in John. If Jesus is my source of life as a Christian, and he is the source of life as the vine to my branch, I am inclined to believe that the root that gives life represents Him as well. Yes, Jeremiah calls Israel an olive tree, but that doesn’t provide enough evidence to say Romans is implying the same thing. In fact, Israel was also compared to/known as a vine in what seems to be like even more places in the Bible!
You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shadow and the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River. Why have You then broken down its walls, so that all those who pass by the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the woods ravages it, and the insects of the field devour it. Return again, O God of Hosts; look down from heaven, and behold, have regard for this vine and the root that Your right hand has planted, and the shoots that You made strong for Yourself. It is burned with fire; it is cut down; may they perish at the rebuke from Your presence. – Psalm 80:8 – 16
Now I will sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved concerning His vineyard: My well-beloved has a vineyard in a very fruitful hill. … So now I will tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be consumed; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trodden down. And I will lay it waste: It shall not be pruned or dug, but briers and thorns shall come up. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant. Thus He looked for justice, but saw oppression; for righteousness, but heard a cry. – Isaiah 5:1,5 – 7
Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a wholly faithful seed. How then have you turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine to Me? – Jeremiah 2:21
Son of man, how is the wood of the vine tree better than any wood of a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Can wood be taken from it to do any work, or can men take a peg of it to hang any vessel on it? If it has been cast into the fire for fuel and the fire has devoured both ends of it and the middle of it is burned, is it useful for any work? When it was whole, it was not made into anything. How much less is it useful for any work when the fire has devoured it and it is burned! Therefore thus says the Lord God: As the wood of the vine tree among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I will set My face against them. Though they go out from one fire, yet the fire shall devour them. Then you shall know that I am the Lord when I set My face against them. I will make the land desolate, because they have committed a trespass, says the Lord God. – Ezekiel 15:2 – 8
God called Israel his olive tree, this is undeniable. Just as much as it is undeniable that God called Israel a vine. David called himself an olive tree in Psalm 52:8, called obedient wives “fruitful vines” and obedient children “olive plants.” Hosea is the only other place Israel is explicitly compared to an olive tree (because of its beauty) and unsurprisingly, the chapter is all about Israel sinning and needing to repent lest they face judgment. Even the 2 witnesses in Revelation are revealed to be the olive trees that were mentioned in Zechariah.
Ultimately it’s an understandable, but very weak argument to say that Romans’ olive tree must be Israel “because Jeremiah” uses the comparison. It seems the majority of the time Israel is even compared to a plant of any kind, it’s mainly to use a “burn/consume” metaphor in light of some impending judgment. I believe the other points in the Romans story draw way more similarities to Christ’s vine in John and other Christ-like metaphors (building on the rock, cornerstone, etc.) than anything else. Hence, I simply cannot accept Romans to denote anything along the lines of “Gentiles being grafted into Israel”.
For the sake of thoroughness, in my studies of this passage I found an alternative answer to “what is the olive tree.” A blog post I found presents the idea:
The “root” of the tree represents God’s covenant promises to the patriarchs – Abraham, Issac [sic] and Jacob.
Constable’s Notes (pg 155) also say something similar:
The cultivated “olive tree” was a symbol of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament (Jer. 11:16-17; Hos. 14:4-6). The “wild olive” tree represents the Gentile world. The “rich root” of the cultivated tree, Israel, probably corresponds to the Abrahamic Covenant, from which all of God’s blessings and the very life of the nation sprang. Another view is that the rich root refers to the patriarchs themselves: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We might add to the illustration by saying that the roots derive their nourishment from God Himself.
This could make sense, though as Constable points out, even if the tree/root itself is not Christ, it would still derive its nourishment from Him. Another thing I would point out is that the only real “promise” given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in terms of “giving life” would be that of the Seed which Galatians 3:16 and 14 mention:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and his Seed. He does not say, “and to seeds,” meaning many, but “and to your Seed,” meaning one, who is Christ. v16
so that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. v14
It always, as is the Bible’s custom, leads to Christ. This would further add weight to the point that it cannot be Israel as Israel didn’t exist yet. Of course, Israel did receive the blessing, but only because of who they came from (Jacob, who in turn only received his blessing because of Isaac, who in turn only received his blessing because of Abraham). Ultimately, the promise was really given to Abraham and not Israel (physical nor the small “true” subset).
Continues . . (Part 3)