Sometimes we read the Scriptures and come across an image that is not immediately and clearly understood in our modern context. This is especially true in the book of Psalms, where the authors routinely use metaphors and other figurative language to illustrate Biblical truths. This morning I read one particularly intriguing metaphor for the blessedness of the life in the presence of God from Psalm 52:8 –
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever.
Coming from such a different culture – an agricultural society set in the ancient Near East – the image of a green olive tree is a very important and well-understood figure. But reading this from my own background as a small town pastor who generally kills plants rather than growing them, it is not so readily obvious in its meaning and importance. I don’t usually compare myself to a tree, and if I did it would probably not be an olive tree. An oak tree, maybe, (I am kind of nutty) or a maple tree (because I’m sweet like syrup – just ask my wife), or something in the giant redwood family (I’m about the right size), but not an olive tree.
I don’t spend much time thinking about olive trees, but to the ancient Israelites, the olive tree was a symbol of their prosperity as well as God’s favor. Olive trees were a key source of wealth for the people of Israel, as the olive oil was used for all sorts of things ranging from food to medicine to religious ceremony. So when David wrote that he was like a green olive tree, he was not trying to describe his appearance, he was expressing the blessedness of being a follower of the Lord in a way that made sense in his culture.
In fact, the entire Psalm is a contrast between the righteous and the wicked. On the one hand, the wicked man brags about his sinfulness and his belief that he has gotten away with his evil-doing. He loves evil more than good and uses his tongue to say all sorts of hurtful and devious things. But the destiny of the unrepentant man is to be destroyed, to be uprooted because he trusted in his abundant riches rather than in the Lord. On the other hand, the righteous man, who has made God his strength and rests in the Lord’s mercy, has every reason to believe that he will continue to stand, firmly planted and growing in the presence of God.
To be a green olive tree, then, is to be vibrant and healthy, confidently resting in and praising the goodness of God. It is to share in the fellowship of the saints who trust in the name of the Lord, believing that he is the righteous Judge who will someday reward his followers and punish those who make a mockery of their sin. Charles Spurgeon offers a helpful summary: “But I, hunted and persecuted though I am, am like a green olive tree. I am not plucked up or destroyed, but am like a flourishing olive, which out of the rock draws oil, and amid the drought still lives and grows.” I guess being a green olive tree isn’t so bad.