The Tree of Life

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  • The Tree of Life

    by Patrick Fairbairn, D.D.

    THE first mention made of the tree of life has respect to its place and use, as part of the original constitution of things, in which all presented the aspect of relative perfection and completeness. "Out of the ground," it is said, "made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." The special notice taken of these two trees plainly indicates their singular and preeminent importance in the economy of the primeval world; but in different respects. The design of the tree of knowledge was entirely moral: it was set there as the test and instrument of probation; and its disuse, if we may so speak, was its only allowable use. The tree of life, however, had its natural use, like the other trees of the garden; and both from its name, and from its position in the centre of the garden, we may infer that the effect of its fruit upon the human frame was designed to be altogether peculiar. But this comes out more distinctly in the next notice we have of it—when, from being simply an ordinance of nature, it passed into a symbol of grace. "And the Lord God said, Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever; therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground, from whence he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim, and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life."

    These words seem plainly to indicate, that the tree of life was originally intended for the food of man; that the fruit it yielded was the divinely appointed medium of maintaining in him the power of an endless life; and that now, since he had sinned against God, and had lost all right to the possession of such a power, he was debarred from access to the natural means of sustaining it, by being himself rigorously excluded from the garden of Eden. What might be the peculiar properties of that tree—whether in its own nature it differed essentially from the other trees of the garden, or differed only by a kind of sacramental efficacy attached to it—is not distinctly stated, and can be matter only of conjecture or of probable inference. But in its relation to man's frame, there apparently was this difference between it and the other trees, that while they might contribute to his daily support, it alone could preserve in undecaying vigour a being to be supported. In accordance with its position in the centre of the garden, it possessed the singular virtue of ministering to human life in the fountainhead of upholding that life in its root and principle, while the other trees could only furnish what was needed for the exercise of its existing functions. They might have kept nature alive for a time, as the fruits of the earth do still; but to it belonged the property of fortifying the vital powers of nature against the injuries of disease and the dissolution of death.[1]

    This was undoubtedly well known to Adam, as it was an essential part of the constitution of things around him. And if he had remained stedfast in his allegiance to God, ever restraining his desire from the tree of knowledge, and partaking only of the tree of life, he would have continued to possess life, in incorrupt purity and blessedness, as he received it from the hand of God, possibly also might have been conscious of a growing enlargement and elevation in its powers and functions. But choosing the perilous course of transgression, he forfeited his inheritance of life, and became subject to the threatened penalty of death. The tree of life, however, did not lose its life-sustaining virtue, because the condition on which man's right to partake of it had been violated. It remained what God origin ally made it. And though effectual precautions must now be taken to guard its sacred treasure from the touch of polluted hands, yet there it stood in the centre of the garden still, the object of fond aspirations as well as hallowed recollections though enshrined in a sacredness which rendered it for the present inaccessible to fallen man. Why should its place have been so carefully preserved? and the symbols of worship, the emblems of fear and hope, planted in the very way that led to it? If not to intimate, that the privilege of partaking of its immortal fruit was only for a season withheld, not finally withdrawn waiting till a righteousness should be brought in, which might again open the way to its blessed provisions. For as the loss of righteousness had shut up the way, it was manifest that only by the return of righteousness could a fresh access to the forfeited food be attained. And hence it became, as we shall see, one of the leading objects of God's administration, to disclose the necessity and unfold the nature and conditions of such a work of righteousness as might be adequate to so important an end. The relation man now occupied to the tree of life could of itself furnish no information on this point. It could only indicate that the inheritance of immortal life was still reserved for him, on the supposition of a true and proper righteousness being attained. So that in this primary symbolical ordinance, the hope which had been awakened in his bosom by the first promise, assumed the pleasing aspect of a return to the enjoyment of that immortal life from which, on account of sin, he was appointed to suffer a temporary exclusion.

    But, coupled as this hope was with the present existence of a fallen condition, and the certainty of a speedy return for the body to the dust of death, it of necessity carried along with it the expectation of a future state of being, and of a resurrection from the dead. The prospect of a deliverance from evil, and of a restored immortality of life and blessing, was not to be immediately realized. The now forbidden tree of life was to continue unapproachable, so long as men bore about with them the body of sin and death. They could find the way of life only through the charnel-house of the grave. And it had been a mocking of their best feelings and aspirations, to have held out to them the promise of a victory over the tempter, or to have embodied that promise in a new direction of their hopes toward the tree of life, if there had not been couched under it the assured prospect of a life after death, and out of it. In truth, religious faith and hope could not have taken form and being in the bosom of fallen men, excepting on the ground of such an anticipated futurity. Nor were there long wanting events in the history of Divine providence which would naturally tend to strengthen, in thoughtful and considerate minds, this hopeful anticipation of a future existence. The untimely death of Abel, and the translation of Enoch in the mid-time of his days, must especially have wrought in this direction; since, viewed in connection with the whole circumstances of the time, they could scarcely fail to produce the impression, that not only was the real inheritance of blessing to be looked for in a scene of existence beyond the present, but that the clearest title to this might be conjoined with a comparatively brief and contracted portion of good on earth. Such facts, read in the light of the promise, that the destroyer was yet to be destroyed, and a pathway opened to the lost for par taking anew of the food of immortality, could lead to but one conclusion that the good to be inherited by the heirs of promise necessarily involved a state of life and blessing after this.

    We find the later Jews—notwithstanding their false views respecting the Messiah—indicating in their comments some knowledge of the truth thus signified to the first race of worshippers by their relation to the tree of life. For, of the seven things which they imagined the Messiah should show to Israel, two were, the garden of Eden and the tree of life; and again, "There are also that say of the tree of life, that it was not created in vain, but the men of the resurrection shall eat thereof, and live for ever."[2] These were but the glimmerings of light obtained by men who had to grope their way amid judicial blindness and the misguiding influence of hereditary delusions. Adam and his immediate offspring were in happier circumstances for the discernment of the truth now under consideration. And unless the promise of recovery remained absolutely a dead letter to them, and nothing was learned from their symbolical and expectant relationship to the tree of life (a thing scarcely possible in the circumstances), there must have been cherished in their minds the conviction of a life after death, and the hope of a deliverance from its corruption. Religion at the very first rooted itself in the belief of immortality.[3]

    So much for what the things connected with the tree of life imported to those whom they more immediately respected. Let us glance for a little to the fuller insight afforded into them for such as possess the later revelations of Scripture. "To-day," said Jesus on the cross to the penitent malefactor, "to-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise"—showing how confidently He regarded death as the way to victory, and how completely He was going to bruise the head of the tempter, since He was now to make good for Himself and His people a return to the region of bliss, which that tempter had been the occasion of alienating. "To him that overcometh," says the same Jesus, after having entered on His glory, "will I give to eat of the tree of life, that is in the midst of the paradise of God." And again, "Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."—(Rev. 2:7, 22:14) The least we can gather from such declarations is, that everything which was lost in Adam, shall be again recovered in Christ for the heirs of His salvation. The far distant ends of revelation are seen embracing each other; and the last look we obtain into the workmanship of God corresponds with the first, as face answers to face. The same God of love and beneficence who was the beginning, proves Himself to be also the ending. It is the intermediate portion alone which seems less properly to hold of Him—being in so many respects marred with evil, and chequered with adversity to the members of His family. There, indeed, we see much that is unlike God—His once beautiful workmanship defaced the comely order of His government disturbed—the world He had destined for "the house of the glory of His kingdom," rendered the theatre of a fierce and incessant warfare between the elements of good and evil, in which the better part is too often put to the worse—and humanity, which He had made to be an image of Himself, smitten in all its members with the wound of a sore disease, beset when living with numberless calamities, and becoming, when dead, the prey of its most vile and loathsome adversaries. How cheering to know that this unhappy state of disorder and confusion is not to be perpetual—that it occupies but the mid-region of time—and is destined to be supplanted in the final issues of providence by the restitution of all things to their original harmony and blessedness of life! The tempter has prevailed long, but, God be thanked, he is not to prevail for ever. There is yet to come forth from the world, which he has filled with his works of evil, new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness shall dwell—another paradise with its tree of life—and a ransomed people created anew after the image of God, and fitted for the high destiny of manifesting His glory before the universe.

    But great as this is, it is not the whole. The antitype is always higher than the type; and the work of grace transcends in excellence and glory the work of nature. When, therefore, we are told of a new creation, with its tree of life, and its paradisiacal delights yet to be enjoyed by the people of God, much more is actually promised than the simple recovery of what was lost by sin. There will be a sphere and condition of being similar in kind, but, in the nature of the things belonging to it, immensely higher and better than what was originally set up by the hand of God. All things proceeding from Him are beautiful in their place and season. And it is true of the paradise which has been lost, that its means of life and enjoyment were in every respect wisely adapted to the frames of those who were made for occupying it. But of these it is written, that they were "of the earth, earthy"—only relatively, not absolutely good—in themselves lumpish and infirm tenements of clay, and as such necessarily imperfect in their tastes, their faculties of action and enjoyment, as compared with what is found in the higher regions of existence.

    But, undoubtedly, the same adaptation that existed in the old creation between the nature of the region and the frames of its inhabitants, shall exist also in the new. And as the occupants here shall be the second Adam and His seed—the Lord from heaven, in whom humanity has been raised to peerless majesty and splendour there must also be a corresponding rise in the nature of the things to be occupied. A higher sphere of action and enjoyment shall be brought in, because there is a higher style of being to possess it. There shall not be the laying anew of earth's old foundations, but rather the raising of these aloft to a nobler elevation—not nature revived merely, but nature glorified—humanity, no longer as it was in the earthy and natural man, but as it is and ever shall be in the spiritual and heavenly, and that placed in a theatre of life and blessing every way suitable to its exalted condition.

    Such being the case, it will readily be understood, that the promise, symbolically exhibited in the Old, and distinctly expressed in New Testament Scripture, of a return to paradise and its tree of life, is not to be taken literally. The dim shadow only, not the very image of the good to be possessed, is presented under this imperfect form. And we are no more to think of an actual tree, such as that which originally stood in the centre of Eden, than of actual manna, or of a material crown, which are, in like manner, promised to the faithful. These, and many similar representations found respecting the world to come, are but a figurative employment of the best in the past or present state of things, to aid the mind in conceiving of the future; as thus alone can it attain to any clear or distinct conception of them. Yet while all are figurative, they have still a definite and intelligible meaning. And when the assurance is given to sincere believers, not only of a paradise for their abode, but also of a tree of life for their participation, they are thereby certified of all that may be needed for the perpetual refreshment and support of their glorified natures. These shall certainly require no such carnal sustenance as was provided for Adam in Eden; they shall be cast in another mould. But as they shall still be material frameworks, they must have a certain dependence on the material elements around them for the possession of a healthful and blessed existence. The internal and the external, the personal and the relative, shall be in harmonious and fitting adjustment to each other. All hunger shall be satisfied, and all thirst for ever quenched. The inhabitant shall never say, "I am sick." And like the river itself, which flows in perennial fulness from the throne of God, the well-spring of life in the redeemed shall never know interruption or decay. Blessed, then, it may be truly said, are those who do the commandments of God, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. What can a doomed and fleeting world afford in comparison of such a prospect?

    [1] I have given here only what seems to be the fair and the general import of what is written in Genesis respecting the tree of life; but have avoided any deliverance on the much disputed point, whether by inherent virtue, or by a kind of sacramental efficacy, the fruit of this tree was intended to produce its life-giving influence upon man. The great majority of Protestant divines incline to the latter view; although it must be allowed, the idea of a sacramental virtue in a natural constitution of things seems somewhat out of place, and cannot very easily be distinguished from the Catholic view, which holds certain things to have been supernaturally conferred on Adam, and others to have belonged to him by natural constitution. But the subject, with reference to that specific question, is one on which we want materials for properly deciding, and regarding which opinions are almost sure to differ in the future, as they have done in the past. We could not well have a clearer proof of this, than is afforded by two of the latest commentators on Genesis two also, who are so generally agreed in sentiment, that they are engaged together in producing a commentary on the entire books of the Old Testament—Delitzsch and Keil. The former is of opinion that the passage, Gen. 3:22, distinctly intimates that the tree in question had "the power of life in itself," "a power of perpetually renewing and gradually transforming the natural life of man." And from this he draws the inference, that the fruit of the tree of knowledge also had the power of death in itself, rendering the participation of it deadly. Keil, however, is equally decided on the other side; he says, "We must not seek the power of the tree of life in the physical property of its fruit. No earthly fruit possesses the power of rendering immortal the life, to the support of which it ministers. Life has its root, not in the corporeity of man, but in his spiritual nature, in which it finds its stability and continuance, as well as its origin. The body formed of the dust of earth could not, as such, be immortal; it must either again return to earth and become dust, or through the Spirit be transformed into the immortal nature of the soul. The power is of a spiritual kind, which can transfuse immortality into the bodily frame. It could have been imparted to the earthly tree, or its fruit, only through a special operation of God's word, through an agency which we can no otherwise represent to ourselves than as of a sacramental nature, whereby earthly elements are consecrated to become vessels and bearers of super natural powers." That such is the case now, there can be no doubt; but it may be questioned whether it does not proceed on too close an assimilation of matters in the primeval, to those of the existing, state of things.

    [2] R. Elias ben Mosis, and R. Menahem, in Ainsworth on Gen. 3.

    [3] See farther at beginning of Ch. VI., sec. 6.
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