“For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grow old in the earth,
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put out branches like a young plant.
But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and, where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so, a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.” – Job 14:7-9
I have grown to love and appreciate these words from Job. Nalanda and I live with a visual representation of these words in our house. About a year ago, our indoor rubber plant was outdoors getting some direct sun and fresh air (or so we thought) when in typical Calgary fashion it decided to hail! The tree was destroyed, its large and beautiful leaves were ripped to shreds and filled with holes. Nalanda decided the best option was to cut them down to the stump, and start all over. It has taken quite a while but now, about a year later the shoots are large and flourishing. If you look closely you can see that one has directed its energy into one stem off the root, with larger and more pronounced leaves, while the other has stemmed off into two equally healthy but slightly smaller branches.
I’ve thought about these verses from Job a lot, but recently the Bible Project clued me in to the fact that the Scriptures are full of talk about trees. In fact, a quick keyword search on Bible Gateway will yield 257 results. There’s the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the burning bush (are bushes trees?), the tree from Psalm 1 and all throughout the prophets, the fig tree, the cross (which is often referred to as a tree)… you get the idea. Trees seem to be important to God, and are often used as a metaphor for human life.
In this passage, Job is observing the fact that there seems to be hope for resurrection in the world of trees, and yet not in the world of men. He observes that trees (like our rubber tree) can be cut down entirely, and then come back to new and abundant life. When he looks at man he says that this is not the case -- men die and as far as Job can tell, they never return. Job is lamenting that Death carries with it a finality in the world of men. He is baffled at how it appears that trees are better off than man in this world which God has made.
I’m sympathetic to Job’s lament in this passage. There are many times in life when it seems to me that death has had the final say. This could be physical death or spiritual death -- but there are distinct moments when it seems that death and evil have prevailed and all hope for humanity appears to be lost.
Yet I also believe that Job was missing out on a piece (or rather a Person) which is integral to understanding this metaphor. Comparing the cutting down of a tree to the state of humanity is not sufficiently similar. The state of humanity which Job is observing is more comparable to the uprooting of a tree. There is no hope for a tree which has been uprooted from the soil. It has no chance of new life without the rich nutrients of the soil and without the hope of water moving through the ground to make it grow. It is cut off entirely from its source of life.
Scripture speaks at length of two types of death: physical and spiritual. Physical death is something I understand. Although I fear it and want to avoid it, I know that it is part of life. Spiritual death is subtle, and harder for me to identify. Spiritual death is the natural consequence of missing the mark of what God intends for me. It’s what happens in my soul and in my world, when I put created things in front of God, when I tell God (with my choices and actions) that I know better than he does. Something in me dies when I do this -- and this death ripples out into the world and into the people around me. Humanity’s predicament then is like that of an uprooted tree- cut off completely from the true source of life- with no hope of new life unless we can be re-planted.
Jesus is exactly like the tree which Job is observing in this passage. He is the only person who lived his life with roots running deep. He was not uprooted – he was never cut off from God by going his own way. He glorified God with his life and put nothing in front of God the entire time he walked this earth. God made trees to have roots, to live as a part of something greater than themselves, to sustain their life through something transcendent to themselves. Trees seem to have a handle on this; they don’t fight the fact that they have needs which must be fulfilled from outside, rather they flourish wherever they are planted. God made me in this same way, to be connected to Himself since he transcends me and is the true source of my life. I get this wrong and try to live independently of Him. I can easily try to live like an uprooted tree, convinced I need nothing outside myself to sustain my life, and it doesn’t take long for this to wither. Jesus did not do this, rather, he maintained a strong connection with everything transcendent of himself to be able to live the way he did. That is why Jesus could be cut down and live again.
The good news for me is that Jesus offers a chance to be a part of His new life. Without Jesus, I’ll wither and die like the uprooted tree that I am, but with Jesus I can flourish and live again like Him. The invitation Jesus makes to you and I is that we stop trying to be our own trees entirely, that we become a branch; an extension of the Tree of Life Himself. I am invited to stop trying to be good enough on my own to please God, to stop trying to flourish by plans of my own design, and to stop trying to meet all my own needs. I am invited into Jesus, to become a part of Him and what he is doing. Then I can become a branch which can bear fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) because I am attached to Jesus the True Vine.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:5