Decoding the symbolism St. John used when writing the Book of Revelation is key to understanding the message of the book. Correctly understanding the symbols requires understanding and knowing our Bibles back-to-front. Most Christians barely know their Bibles at all, so it’s understandably difficult to interpret the scripture.
God intended us to respond to symbols and symbolism. Through these things, grand ideas and sweeping images can be conveyed in ways that mere words cannot do justice. Invoking symbolism calls forth the most powerful faculties of our minds to convey many complex ideas in even a single image.
This article is about a simple symbol: the tree. Let’s look at an example from Revelation where trees are mentioned:
After his I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that no wind should blow on the earth, or on the sea, or upon any tree. (Revelation 7:1)
Pay attention to the difference in the language used to describe the objects that the wind is acting on: on the earth, on the sea, upon any tree.
One of those is different from the other two. But why?
The trees stand out on this passage. Attention is distinctly drawn to them.
Throughout the Bible, God’s righteous saints are referred to as trees. Strong oaks, green leaves, many branches, bearing fruit. These are all images that are used to describe those people who are covenanted to God.
Let’s look first at an example from Exodus:
…till your people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode… (Exodus 15:16-17)
Here is a second example, from Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked… (1)
…He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (3)
This Psalm compares a man who does not seek the counsel of the wicked. He is not a wicked man. He is a man who delights in the law of the Lord. Men who obey God’s commandments, his laws, are righteous.
Another example, from Psalm 92:
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… (Psalm 92:12-14)
This Psalm paints a picture of a righteous person who is fertile and productive. Because of their love for the Lord and their obedience to his Word, they live long, productive lives and multiply their offspring in great numbers, producing Godly children.
Compare this to the description of the wicked, who are compared to stupid men who cannot know the great works and thoughts of the Lord. They “sprout like grass,” but they only flourish for a short time:
The stupid man cannot know;
the fool cannot understand this:
that though the wicked sprout like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction forever; (Psalm 92:6-7)
…the Lord has annointed me…
…to give them…
…the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-4)
Lastly, from Jeremiah:
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
Time and time again, we see how God describes those who trust in him. They will reap double portions, they will not fear hardship because they always persevere, just like a strong oak tree.
God’s people will always be blessed even during the hard times. As Christians who are bathed in the blood of Christ and saved by His death at Calvary, there is nothing in this physical world left to fear. Christ has already declared victory over Satan and death, and since we are made alive in Christ we too share in this victory.
So when the early Church heard St. John’s sermon, read aloud in church on Sunday (“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near…) they could take heart at this symbolic imagery.
God’s winds that bring the curses of judgment were coming, but not yet. They would be held back long enough so that all of God’s servants could be sealed through Baptism and marked for protection. This brought hope that God was indeed looking out for his righteous covenant keepers. He would keep them safe in the Great Tribulation against apostate Israel that was to come.