Trees have significance from the start of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden, through to the end, in the New Jerusalem. They generally carry associations of abundance and status, given that they were comparatively rare in the arid near eastern environment.

Fall and restoration

The Garden of Eden

Tree of KnowledgeGenesis highlights two particular trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil Genesis 2:9. Adam and Eve disobey the order not to eat from the latter Genesis 3:2-6, and it is this act which sees them banished from the garden and consequently prevented from eating from the tree of life [6Genesis 3:22-24].

From being an image of eternal or unending life, the tree of life thus becomes a symbol of what has been lost in the Fall. However, in Revelation it symbolises hope once more, when the Holy Spirit promises it to believers who stay faithful despite suffering:

To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Revelation 2:7  ESVUK

The New Jerusalem

The end of Revelation describes the trees in the New Jerusalem – the beautiful and holy city where God’s people will one day dwell in his presence:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.’

Revelation 22:1-2  ESVUK

Trees and status


Neighbouring ancient Israel, Lebanon was a source of mighty cedar trees. Regarded as strong and majestic, they were used for the building and decoration of Israel’s royal palaces and God’s Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:14-18), as well as having preserv-ative properties. Yet according to Hebrew poetry, even the towering cedar gave way to the majesty of God (Psalms 29:4-9) and to the strength of his ‘vine’ (the children of Israel) Psalms 80:8-10.

In Ezekiel 31 the cedar becomes a symbol of glory and pride (and the Assyrian empire) which ultimately God causes to be cut down (Ezekiel 31:10-12), the whole being a warning to the Egyptian empire which threatened Israel.

Oak and palm trees

Oaks in the Bible are usually associated with strength and welcome shade. In Isaiah 61: 3 God promises to restore his people so that they become ‘oaks of righteousness’, a prophesy associated with Jesus at the start of his ministry.

Indicating the presence of water in the desert, the palm was frequently depicted as a decora-tive motif in the Temple (see 1 Kings 6:29; Ezekiel 41:25-26) and regarded as a tree which flourished easily (e.g.Psalms 92:12). In the New Testament, palm branches were waved and used to line the processional route of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:13; Matthew 21:86]), a day subsequently celebrated by Christians as Palm Sunday.

A metaphor for flourishing

Humans are frequently compared with trees when they depend on, and receive, the blessing of God (e.g. Jeremiah 17:7-8):

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.

Psalm 1:3  ESVUK

The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had a vision of a huge, fruitful tree, sheltering all sorts of animal life, which was then cut down and reduced to a stump Daniel 4:10-14. The prophet Daniel informed him regretfully that he, the king, was that tree, and was to be stripped of his greatness for a season until he acknowledged the sovereignty of God Daniel 4:19-27.

Jesus used the metaphor of a tiny mustard seed which grows into a huge, flourishing tree to illustrate the nature of the Kingdom of God Matthew 13:31-32. He also told his disciples that ‘faith like a grain of mustard seed’ is enough to uproot a mulberry tree and push it into the sea Luke 17:5-6.

The cross

The cross on which Jesus was crucified is sometimes described as a ‘tree’ (e.g. 1 Peter 2:24). It was unlikely to have been an actual tree, as this was not Roman practice at the time. Rather, the word alludes to aspects of Jewish law: whilst crucifixion had no precedent in Judaism, the bodies of those sentenced to execution (normally by stoning) would be afterwards hung in trees as a display of their guilt. This was understood to signify that they were ‘cursed by God’ Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Paul explained how Christ took on himself the curse appropriate for human sin:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’.

Galatians 3:13  ESVUK

Trees in literature

  • The Old English poem The Dream of the Rood depicts Christ’s crucifixion from the per-spective of the tree from which the wooden cross was made. It too is nailed and bloodied, but is proud to serve ‘the Lord of all mankind’
  • There ‘blossomed many an incense-bearing tree’ in the gardens of the ‘stately pleasure dome’ of the titular character of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (1797)
  • Book 6 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) finds Prince Andrew emotionally identifying with an old, wintry oak tree apparently immune to the onset of spring. In June he sees the tree again – transformed and in full foliage – and takes encouragement that neither is it too late for him to experience life and renewal
  • In Howards End (E.M. Forster, 1910) the titular house is neighboured by a large wych-elm tree to which Mrs. Wilcox has an almost mystical attachment. The presence of the tree in the novel acts to highlight the connectedness of humans to nature
  • Joyce Kilmer considers poetry, in all its man-made contrivance, impoverished next to the ‘loveliness’ of a God-created tree, in his poem Trees (1913)
  • In Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous sonnet What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (1920) the poet compares herself to a lonely tree in winter, with all her lovers past and gone
  • T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi (1927) describes ‘three trees on the low sky’, representing the cross of Christ and those of the two criminals crucified either side of him Matthew 27:38
  • Robert Frost’s 1929 poem Christmas Trees – sent as part of his annual festive greeting – tells of a business man visiting the narrator’s home and seeking to negotiate (unsuccessfully) for his plot of fir trees
  • In The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis (1955), Digory takes one of the healing apples back from Narnia to save his mother. He plants the core in their garden, and from the resulting tree makes a very special wardrobe. 


  • As an evergreen, the fir tree traditionally used for a Christmas tree is symbolic of the eternal life Christians believe is conferred by Jesus on believers.

Related topics

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.