Exploring Biblical Imagery is one of the most important keys to interpreting and gaining a deeper understanding of the Bible. The Bible often communicates truth to us through images and patterns. Yes, as seen in many places in both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible also teaches us truth through abstract propositions like “you shall love God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5), but understanding Biblical Imagery is foundational to the development of the abstract principles and propositions.
As an example, let’s explore the image of the Tree of Life found in the Book of Genesis. First, we should examine its literal and concrete meaning. As explained in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Palestine (like much of the Middle East) is a very arid climate and trees have a special status. Buildings made from wood are not the norm in that region. Wood is a luxury there. In such an arid environment, the planting of a tree (Gen. 21:3) or the burial of someone under a tree (Gen. 35:8) merits documenting. The most common tree in Palestine is the olive tree, which accounts for the largest portion of food production.
Trees are images of life, abundance, and prosperity. At Psalm 1:1-3, we read how the righteous person is compared to a tree planted by streams of water. This is an example of the Bible’s use of metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison between one thing and another.
Blessed is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scoffers! But his delight is in the Law of the Lord, and on His Law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, and in whatever he does, he prospers.
At Psalm 92:12-14, we read,
The righteous person will flourish like the palm tree, he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courtyards of our God. They will still yield fruit in advanced age; they will be full of sap and very green.
Trees are an important part of God’s Providence for both people and animals. Trees provide a nest for birds and food for animals. Trees are also pleasing to the eyes (Gen. 3:6). The fig tree and the olive tree (as mentioned above) are important sources of food in the world of the Bible. Palm trees are also mentioned dozens of times in the Bible. When Deborah functioned as a judge, she delivered her opinions to the sons of Israel from beneath a palm tree (Jdg. 4:5). When the Lord Jesus (the King of Israel) rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Jerusalemites spread palm branches in front His path (Matt. 21:4-11; John 12:13). At Revelation 7:9, the righteous are pictured as being dressed in white robes and carrying palm branches in their hands. To see the symbolic connection between a righteous person and the palm branches, the reader must be aware of Revelation’s allusion to Psalm 92, which states that a righteous person will flourish like a palm tree. In my opinion, to properly interpret the meaning of Revelation 7:9, the reader must have an exposure to and appreciation for Psalm 92.
The Tree of Life is explicitly mentioned in only the Books of Genesis, Revelation, and Proverbs. So, it is explicitly mentioned only in the first and last books of the Bible, together with the Book of Proverbs, which is dedicated to the teaching of wisdom. At Genesis, Chapter 3, we learn that after humanity’s disobedience to God, we were denied access to Eden and to the Tree of Life. No longer could we eat of the Tree of Life and live forever.
Many have concluded that the Tree of Life is symbolic of immortality and eternal life, but what is eternal life? I propose that eternal life is much more than just a never-ending existence. The Book of Proverbs provides the reader with greater insight into a fuller meaning of the Tree of Life and eternal life. At Proverbs 3:18, we read that wisdom is a Tree of Life “to those who take hold of her.” At Proverbs 3:1-2, we read, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but have your heart comply with my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace will be added to you.” At Proverbs 3:5, we read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” God’s wisdom is a Tree of Life, and we gain God’s wisdom and share in His life only on His terms.
At Proverbs 11:30, we read, “The fruit of righteousness is a tree of life.” Living righteously according to God’s will is one of the ways we participate in the life of God. At Proverbs 13:3, we read that that “one who guards his mouth protects his life.” At Proverbs 13:14, we read that “the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” and at Proverbs 13:12, we learn that “desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Our deepest hope is sharing in the peace and joy of God. From the Apostle Paul, we learn that the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). We cannot share in God’s life if we are disobedient to God. We must live under the rule of God. At Proverbs 15:4, we learn that a “soothing tongue is a tree of life.” When we guard our mouth and seek to speak in ways that are pleasing to God, we can share God’s life with the rest of humanity.
At Revelation 2:7, we read, “‘The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes, I will grant to eat from the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.’” What does it mean to be an overcomer? The Greek verb nikao means “to conquer, overcome, prevail, or to get the victory.” To be an “overcomer” believer, we must be faithful until our death. We must not “fall away” or “drift away” from our walk of faith (Heb. 2:1). If we remain faithful, we will receive special blessings and privileges for all eternity. Revelation 2:26 states, “The one who overcomes, and the one who keeps my deeds until the end, I will give him authority over the nations.” To keep the deeds of Christ means that we must seek to do the works that God gives us to do. We must seek His will, not our own.
The idea of ruling with Christ is consistent with the teaching of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “If we endure, we will also reign with Him” (I Tim. 2:12). Further, this idea is also consistent with God’s declared intent at Genesis 1:26: “Let us make mankind in our image; according to our likeness, and let them rule” (Gen. 1:26) over God’s creation. God has always had big plans for humankind. The sharing in God’s rule is a part of what it means to share in God’s life. We overcome the world by remaining faithful (1 John 5:4). Exclusivity and special privileges are a big part of the message of the New Jerusalem and the Tree of Life. The opportunity is open to all, but most are like the majority of Israelites who did not remain faithful in their desert wanderings after escaping from Egypt, and who were not permitted to enter into the Promised Land. The challenge to believe and remain faithful is a major and reoccurring theme of Scripture. Yes, our lives are one big test of faithfulness. The full realization of God’s intent for us requires faithfulness.
Finally, the reader should be alerted to one very important fact. Around AD 30, Jesus established Himself as perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of the world. Please note that Jesus Christ most often taught by using figurative speech. He used everyday circumstances, events, and things to teach higher spiritual realities. For example, in His invitation to His disciples, He said, “Come and I will make you fishers of people” (Matt. 4:19). He did not mean this literally. We do not win someone to the faith by means of a fishhook or net, but we must exhibit things like patience and perseverance. There will be a lot of empty hooks and nets. Through figurative language, we see a new spiritual reality.
 “Tree, Trees” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Gen. Ed. Leland Ryken, et al. InterVarsity Press, 1998, pp. 890-891.
 “G3528 – nikaō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (nasb20).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 24 Jul, 2023. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g3528/nasb20/mgnt/0-1/>.