Symbolism of the Olive
There is an ancient tradition that the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden was an olive tree. According to the Apocalypse of Moses, an apocryphal Hebrew book, when Adam fell ill Seth went to request the “oil of mercy” to anoint Adam and restore his health. His entreaty was refused, as it was destined for Adam to die, but the angel Michael told Seth that the oil would be granted to the righteous at the end of days. In a similar passage in the “Life of Adam” the oil is referred to as “the tree of mercy from which the oil of life flows.”
Another reference to the “tree of life” in the Garden as an olive tree may be found in 4th Edras: “The tree of life shall give them fragrant perfume” (2:12, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, p.527).
The same concept is preserved in the writings of the early church fathers, in Pseudo-Clement, which refers explicitly to “the oil of the tree of life.”
In the book of James, we read that when a person is sick, they should call upon the elders of the church for prayer and anointing. James declared, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:14-16).
The oil represents holy anointing by the power of the Spirit of God. The apostle John wrote of God’s Spirit as an ‘anointing.” He declared: “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (I John 2:27).
Jesus Christ explained, “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). He added, “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit will tell us “things to come” (same verse).
Oil, therefore, is a type of the Holy Spirit – as are water (John 7:37-39) and the wind (John 3:8; Acts 2:1-4).
Rulership and Sovereignty
The olive tree’s association with royalty and rulership is also shown by its usage in providing “oil” to anoint those favored by God. It was an emblem of sovereignty, and was used to anoint “kings” to office (I Sam.10:1, I Kings 1:39; II Kings 9:1, 6).
When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God said to Samuel the prophet, “Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse, the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons” (I Sam.16:1). When David the youngest son was presented before Samuel, he “took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward”(I Sam.16:13). God said, “I have found My servant David; with My holy oil, I have anointed him” (Psalm 89:20).
Kings were “anointed ones.” That means, in Hebrew, that they were messiahs, for the term “Messiah” literally means “anointed one.” Isaiah the prophet even calls the Gentile king Cyrus “God’s anointed one” (Isa.45:1).
The true Messiah, Son of David, however, is also called “His Anointed” (Psalm 2:2). In Hebrew, the word is Messiah, or Moshiach. In Greek, it is translated “Christ.” In English, it would be “Commissioned One,” or “Anointed One.”
Joy and Gladness
Olive oil also symbolized gladness and joy. David wrote of the Messiah, “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God,, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness more than your companions” (Psalm 45:7). When the Messiah returns, He will give the people “the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).
Joy, symbolized by olive oil, is the second fruit of the Holy Spirit listed by the apostle Paul: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness [meekness], self control” (Gal.5:22-23).
God’s Spirit is the Spirit of joy, and joy is associated with the oil of the olive! The olive tree is also associated with the Festival of Joy – the Feast of Tabernacles.
In Nehemiah we read that during the Feast of Tabernacles, God’s people are to “dwell” or “sit” in booths, or sukkah, small, temporary dwellings, out-of-doors, under the open sky, as a testimony of their faith and obedience to God, and as a symbol of walking and living intimately with God (Nehemiah 8:14-15). This was to be a great, tremendous time of joy overflowing and running over! The Feast is called “the festival of our joy” by the Jewish people, because God commands especially for this festival we must “rejoice” (Deut.14:26). At the festival, God commands, “you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand” (Deut.12:7). “And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God” (Deut.12:12; see also verse 18). Three times in one single chapter, God thunders, “REJOICE”!!!
Do we get the message?
“The joy of the LORD shall be your strength” (Nem.8:10).
Oil for Lamps
Olive oil served as fuel for lamps. In the parable of the ten virgins, five wise and five foolish, the foolish ones allowed the oil in their lamps to run out (Matt.25:3). The “lamp” is a symbol of the Word of God. David wrote, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). Solomon wrote, “For the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light” (Prov.6:23). The oil of the lamp is the indwelling Spirit of God. God’s Spirit sheds illumination on the laws and commandments of God, giving us understanding and wisdom and knowledge. Without it, God’s Word is a hopeless jumble of indecipherable riddles, paradoxes, and mysterious allegories. But God’s Spirit opens His Word and His Law to our understanding, so we can grasp and obey them!
When a lamp was filled with olive oil, the wick maintained a steady flame until the fuel ran out. So it is with God’s people. When we are filled with His Spirit, our spiritual light shines brightly and gives a steady, radiant light! (Matt.5:14-16). In New Testament times, it was customary for the bearer of the lamp to attach a small container of olive oil to one finger by means of a string, to safeguard against oil depletion and loss of light.
Olive oil was also used as a medicine to anoint wounds. It was used both internally and externally. Its soothing and protective qualities made it a valuable remedy for gastric disorders, and its qualities as a mild laxative were widely recognized in ancient times. Externally, it was used for bruises and wounds. Isaiah wrote, “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; they have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment” (Isaiah 1:6). Jesus sent out His disciples to heal the sick and to preach the gospel. “So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13).
In another case, a good Samaritan found along a road a man beaten and injured by robbers. He had compassion on him, and “bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:34).
The wholesome, healthy aspect of olives has generally been overlooked by most people. It is the best oil for cooking, for using to make salad dressings, for sautéing foods, and provides many nutritious food factors to our diet. Olive leaf extract is another recently discovered health supplement which helps the body fight off disease. In Biblical times, olives were an important part of the diet of God’s people (II Chron.2:10). It was mixed with meal and made into cakes. The oil was often used in the preparation of food, replacing butter in cooking (I Kings 17:12-16).
The Olive Tree and Righteous Man
The heartiness, ruggedness, and strength of the olive tree made it an ideal symbol of the righteous man – the tzaddik. David said, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever” (Psalm 52:8). A green, virile, vigorous olive tree in the house of God represents one who is vigorous and zealous in righteousness, dwelling close to God in fruitful companionship and unity.
Virtue, or righteousness, is likened to fragrant oil. God declares, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments” (Psalm 133:1-2).
In the Song of Solomon, the Shulamite – a type of God’s Church, or Israel – says of her Betrothed, the Messiah – “For your love is better than wine. Because of the fragrance of your good ointments, Your name is ointment poured forth” (Song of Songs 1:2-3).
Oil, however, must be used carefully. Solomon wrote, “There is desirable treasure, and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man squanders it” (Prov.21:20). Because olive oil production was so highly valued in Israel, in David’s day special guards and protectors were appointed to safeguard the olive orchards, as if they were silver and gold (I Chron.9:29; 27:28).
David says of God, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over” (Psalm 23:5). He speaks of three vital elements for mankind, declaring that God gives us “wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15).
Likewise, God says of Israel, when they repent of their transgressions of His divine Law, “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from him. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall grow like the lily, and lengthen his roots like Lebanon. His branches shall spread; his beauty shall be like an olive tree, and his fragrance like Lebanon” (Hos.14:4-6).
The children of the righteous are also described as olive plants. God declares, “Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways. When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD” (Psalm 128:1-4).
However, it is most instructive to note that the fruit of the olive tree, in its wild state, is both small and worthless. It must be properly tended and cultivated to produce optimum fruit. To become truly prolific, the olive tree must be grafted, a process by which good stock is made to grow upon a wild shrub.
Speaking of the vitality of this truth, the apostle Paul wrote, comparing Israel and the Gentile nations to the olive tree. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:16-24).
The natural olive tree here pictures Israel, and the wild olive trees picture Gentiles. Because of unbelief and a lack of faith, the majority of Jewish people today have rejected Christ as the Messiah. Their minds are blinded to this incredible truth. Therefore, God has broken them off the tree, and has grafted into His tree of spiritual “Israel,” many Gentile believers. But, Paul points out, they, too, stand by the grace of God. God forbid that they should become arrogant, proud, lifted up, and conceited – for if they sin, they too can be broken off the tree and replaced!
Even so, the unbelieving Jews are not lost eternally. They can still be grafted back onto the good tree, if they will only come to their senses, repent of their sins, and accept the Messiah – Yeshua of Nazareth – who was proved to be the true Messiah by many proofs, as the New Testament record reveals.
This picture of the grafting of the olive tree should make each one of us sit up and take notice – to consider the severity and justice of God, and also His abundant mercy and goodness. Our salvation is up to us! As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Therefore, my beloved . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil.2:12). “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (I Pet.4:17).
The Olive and Us!
The “shaking” and “beating” of olives, to harvest them and extract the precious oil, is a type of the life of God’s people. The shaking pictures each one of us, who must literally be “shaken” up in order for us to repent of our sins, become converted, and to change our way of life to conform to God’s standard of living.
Paul wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom..12:2).
The Jewish people, in the book of Acts, on that first Pentecost of the New Testament Church, heard the preaching of the apostle Peter, and they were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). What Peter said shook them up. They exclaimed in alarm, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” They did not take the message lightly.
Even so, for any of us to become truly converted, at first we must be shaken up. And “stirred.” Stirred up in our heart and mind, and anxious make amends. To save ourselves! Peter exhorted and urged them, “Be saved from this perverse [crooked] generation” (Acts 2:40).
Secondly, once we are “shaken” and our lives begin to change, then we must be “beaten down,” humbled, suffer, and be “crushed,” “bruised,” and afflicted, in order to produce the fruits of righteousness – the good “first fruits” of olive oil!
That is why David wrote, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:19). And, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22). He wrote, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
The apostle Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:13). James asserted, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). And Peter declared, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (I Pet.4:12-13).
Just like the poor olives, we too must be crushed, beaten down, and humbled, so that we can produce much good fruit for God’s Kingdom!
Do you like being trodden upon? Mashed down? Crushed? Of course not! It is hard to take – humiliating – humbling. Yet it is for our own eternal good, to give us an entrance into the glorious kingdom of God! Therefore we must be “more diligent to make our calling and election sure,” so that we will “never stumble, for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Pet.1:10-11).
“Sons of Oil”
In the book of Zechariah the prophet, two of God’s most fruitful servants are described as “olive trees.” In the prophecy, Zechariah sees a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl and “seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps. Two olive trees are by it, one at the right of the bowl and the other at its left” (Zech.4:2-3).
The angel told the prophet, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth thee capstone with shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zech.4:6-7). God adds, further, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands shall also finish it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. For who has despised the day of small things? For these seven rejoice to see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. They are the eyes of the LORD which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth” (Zech.4:9-10).
Zechariah then asked, “What are these two olive trees – at the right of the lampstand and at its left?” (verse 11). He went on, “What are these two olive branches that drip into the receptacle of the two gold pipes from which the golden oil drains?” (v.12). The angel answered, “ ‘Do you not know what these are?” And I said, ‘No, my lord.’ So he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones [Hebrew, ‘sons of fresh oil’], who stand before the Lord of the whole earth’” (Zech.4:13-14).
This prophecy is interpreted for us in the New Testament. Many have noticed that the book of Zechariah seems to be a type or forerunner of the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament. Indeed, there are many connections between the two prophetic books.
In Revelation, Jesus Christ explains the meaning of the seven lamps of the lampstand. John the writer of Revelation also saw a vision of seven lamps. He said, “I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands One like the Son of Man. . . He had in His right hand seven stars . . .” (Rev.1:12-16). What is this symbolism? Jesus declares, “The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seen golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches” (Rev.1:20).
In Revelation, chapters 2-3, we find a direct prophecy given for each of seven churches of God, each one related to the next but all seven independent – like seven branches of a tree, all united at the base by the trunk, which is Christ. Each of these churches has its own ministry and mission, and each has its own problems, weaknesses, sins, and frailties. Nevertheless, as a whole they describe the church of God, the church the Messiah built (Matt.16:18), down through the ages, and in this modern time we live in, today!
What, then, are the two olive trees? Again, in Revelation we discover that during our day, or in the immediate future, God is going to raise up two unique human beings – who will be His servants, like unto Moses and Aaron, or Elijah and Elisha. Notice!
In chapter 11, God tells the apostle John that during this end time there will be a Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem, with worshipers in it (Rev.11:1-2). During this time, the holy city will be trodden under foot by Gentile rulers for 42 months (1260 days or a literal 3 ½ years). And then God says: “And I will give power to My two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” (Rev.11:3).
Who are these two men? John says, “These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the God of the earth” (verse 4).
John ties this prophecy directly to the fourth chapter of Zechariah! He goes on: “And if anyone wants to harm them, fire proceeds from their mouth and devours their enemies. And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this manner. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy, and they have power over waters, to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire” (verses 5-6).
These men are ‘sons of fresh oil” – olive oil! That is to say, they are FILLED with the Holy Spirit of God – ANOINTED by God to be His end-time prophets who will rebuke kings and nations, and thunder out the final warnings of God to a sin-drenched, wicked and corrupt world!
What about us – you and me? Are we “sons of oil”? Are we FILLED with God’s Holy Spirit? When we pray, does God shake heaven and earth to answer our prayers and to intervene? “And let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb.10:23-25).
Let us strive to burn with the zeal of God, and to produce good fruit, filled with the oil of God’s Holy Spirit – as the firstfruits! Let’s learn the lesson of the olive tree!