If the Old Testament had a tree nursery in it, it would be found in the book of Isaiah. It is the Grand Central Station of trees. Isaiah’s prophecies overflow with trees and metaphors involving the land as they return again and again to describing the coming of the Messiah. That’s because the two are connected.
“Look for the Messiah,” Isaiah said. “He resembles a tree.”
The first chapter of Isaiah opens not with prophecy but with Israel being hauled into court by God. The charges against the people are laid out: They are incorrigible teenagers. They think of nothing but themselves. They don’t have the sense God gave a donkey (Isaiah 1:2–3).
God is sick of their religious goings-on. He cares nothing for their burnt offerings, solemn assemblies, and pretend devotion. In fact, God is fed up with their religion: “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them” (verse 14).
Then God’s entire tenor changes, and he proffers one of the most tender invitations in Scripture: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (verse 18).
This whiplash-inducing change in tone from harsh to tender is the hallmark of Isaiah’s exquisite writing. It reminds me of the flight of a fly-fishing lure. The lure whips back and forth in ever-changing directions. At any given instant an observer has no idea where the lure might land. But the one fishing knows from the start.
In contrast to this variable tone, Isaiah’s knowledge and affection for the natural world are woven steadily through the work from chapter 1 to 66.
Bad News with Defiled Groves
From chapter 1 onward Isaiah used trees to tell the Hebrew nation good news and bad, starting with the bad. Once again the Hebrew people have gone whoring after idols. Isaiah said they should be ashamed of the oaks and the gardens where they conduct their pagan orgies. Because they perform ceremonies to other gods in these sacred groves (“the oaks that you desired,” verse 29), the Hebrew people will wither and be good for nothing but firewood.
In chapter 3 Isaiah prophesied that a nation that forsakes God will no longer have leaders with character or the ability to lead. “I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable” (verses 4–5). While the men of the land will be busy acting like children, Isaiah stated, the women will become haughty and arrogant and adopt lewd fashions, makeup, and hairstyles.
Leaders who act like babies and sport outlandish fashions are not the only consequences that will happen when God’s people turn from him. Language will lose its meaning. People will begin to call “evil good and good evil” (5:20), even going so far as calling light dark and darkness light. They will call bitter sweet and vice versa. At times it is hard to tell whether Isaiah is writing about ancient history or the dawn of our current millennium.
Good News Through a Branch
Isaiah also used trees to deliver good news, and the good news was a foolproof method of recognizing the Messiah. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (11:1). By couching his predictions in tree terms, Isaiah pointed out that trees would play a pertinent role in identifying the Messiah. The Messiah would come from the family tree of King David, as David’s father was Jesse. Isaiah provided unique details about the Messiah.
Hundreds of years later when Jesus arrived, anyone looking for the Messiah could have used these clues to identify him. Hundreds of years before it happened, Isaiah narrowed down the possibilities of the man who would fit the description of the Messiah to a field of one. A virgin would conceive the Messiah (7:14). He would be “despised and rejected by men” (53:3). He would be killed for our transgressions (verse 5). He would be led to the slaughter and would make no effort to escape (verse 7). The Messiah would heal the blind and the deaf (35:5). A man from the wilderness would announce the Messiah (40:3–5). And the list goes on…
God Nailed to a Dead Tree
A trip to an art museum might help you understand just how specific and unique Isaiah’s predictions about the Messiah were. If you visit a large museum and look at the statues and paintings that depict gods from various times and cultures, you are likely to find artwork that shows animals combined with the bodies of humans.
You will see feathered serpent gods, eagle-headed gods, and fanged gods; some have crowns of gold. If the deities have human forms, they will be magnificent in appearance. Some statues portray gods that have transcended the world with eyes closed in peaceful meditation.
Contrast these images with the most common depiction of the Messiah: Jesus on the cross. Here we see Christ in agony or in death. He has not transcended the sufferings of this world. Quite the opposite: he took on all the world’s sin and sorrow. Instead of a crown of gold, he wears a crown of thorns. His clothing is nonexistent, or he is in rags. He is not powerful and looming over humanity; instead, he is nailed to a dead tree.
To quote Isaiah,
He [the Messiah] grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised,
and we esteemed him not. (53:2–3)
To stare at a painting of Christ on the cross today is to gaze on a portrait of the Messiah described by Isaiah 2,700 years ago. His likeness is no abstract expressionist rendering. There can be no case of mistaken identity.
Isaiah’s description resembles only one person in history. Perhaps even more telling, Isaiah’s picture of the Messiah resembles no other god in history. Isaiah was the only prophet to give a physical description of Jesus. Jesus looks as ordinary as a small plant or tree. Unlike the majestic depictions of other gods, nothing is imposing about the appearance of Jesus.
And here Isaiah hinted at the reason trees have gone missing from our theology. Like trees, Jesus gives life. Fallen humanity, however, has a habit of choosing the things that take life away. We reject Jesus, we disobey God, and we walk away from the tree of life.
Adapted from Reforesting Faith by Matthew Sleeth Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Sleeth.
To be published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 16, 2019.