I live in the Evergreen State, and a line of towering pines across my parking lot reminds me of this whenever I sit at my desk. If any of them decides to fall eastward, I’ll be really glad to have renter’s insurance. When my sister and I drove through nearby forested mountains, she summarized things perfectly: “I feel small.” Trees will do that to you, especially the big ones. They symbolize strength and power and permanence.
Trees had the same sort of significance in the ancient Near East – and probably even more so. (After all, the topography of the Middle East isn’t quite like the Pacific Northwest.) In ancient Near Eastern religions (and many other religions as well), a great cosmic tree was the symbolic link between heaven and earth. Commentator John Goldingay says it pretty thoroughly: “A lofty, pre-eminent, verdant, protective, fruitful, long-lived tree is a common symbol for the living, transcendent, life-giving, sustaining Cosmos or Reality or Deity itself.” The tree symbol was the perfect picture, then, of a king, who reigned as the representative of a god. He mediated to his people the life, provision, and protection of their god.
In Daniel 4:10–13, King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great cosmic tree, a tree of life for animals, birds, and people alike. He knew exactly what he was seeing in his dream: the far-reaching Babylonian empire, with him as the beneficent center of the world.
What Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know, however, is what Yahweh had to say about such trees. In a 587 BC oracle against Egypt, the prophet Ezekiel warned a proud Pharaoh about what happened to Assyria, the empire Babylon defeated in 612 BC: (It’s a long text but super instructive):
- Whom are you like in your greatness? Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches and forest shade, and of towering height, its top among the clouds. The waters nourished it; the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place of its planting, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth to their young, and under its shadow lived all great nations. It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant waters. The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; neither were the plane trees like its branches; no tree in the garden of God was its equal in beauty. I made it beautiful in the mass of its branches, and all the trees of Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God.
- Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, I will give it into the hand of a mighty one of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out. Foreigners, the most ruthless of nations, have cut it down and left it. On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs have been broken in all the ravines of the land, and all the peoples of the earth have gone away from its shadow and left it. On its fallen trunk dwell all the birds of the heavens, and on its branches are all the beasts of the field. All this is in order that no trees by the waters may grow to towering height or set their tops among the clouds, and that no trees that drink water may reach up to them in height. For they are all given over to death, to the world below, among the children of man, with those who go down to the pit. (Ezek 31:2–14, ESV)
Nebuchadnezzar’s tree dream will give him the same warning – and then some. A tree may symbolize strength, power, and permanence, but symbols are abstract ideas. Trees are real…and so are axes.