Question: "What is the significance of the olive tree in the Bible?"
Answer: The olive tree is mentioned frequently in the Bible, from as early as the time of the flood when the dove from the ark brought an olive branch back to Noah, to Revelation 11:4, where the two witnesses are represented as two olive trees. As one of the most highly valued and useful trees known to the ancient Jews, the olive tree is significant for several reasons in the Bible. Its importance in Israel is expressed in the parable of Jotham in Judges 9:8–9: “One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’”
Rather common in the Holy Land, the olive tree is a multi-branched evergreen with a knotted trunk, smooth, ash-colored bark, and oblong, leathery leaves that are silvery green. Mature, cultivated olive trees grow to 20 or more feet in height and produce small flowers of yellow or white around the first of May. When the blooms begin to fall, olives, the fruit of the tree, start to form. At first, the fruit is green but turns to a deep, blue-black or dark green color when the olives are fully ripened and harvested in early fall.
In the ancient Near East, olive trees were an essential source of food (Nehemiah 9:25), lamp oil (Exodus 27:20), medicine (Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:34), anointing oil (1 Samuel 10:1; 2 Kings 9:3), sacrificial oil (Leviticus 2:4; Genesis 28:18), and wood for furniture (1 Kings 6:23, 31–33).
An extremely slow-growing plant, the olive tree requires years of patient labor to reach full fruitfulness. Being well-suited to grow in the Mediterranean climate, the olive tree played a significant role in the region’s economy. The outer, fleshy part of the oval-shaped fruit is what yields the highly valuable commodity of olive oil. Still today, olive oil is considered good for health.
The olive tree and olive branch have been symbols of peace and reconciliation ever since the account of Noah’s flood. When the dove brought Noah “a plucked olive leaf in its beak,” the olive branch represented new life sprouting on the earth (Genesis 8:11). The olive tree was alive and growing. The promise of the dove’s olive branch was a new beginning for humanity, peace and reconciliation with God, renewal, and revival. The slow and hearty growth of the olive tree also implies establishment and peace. Some of the oldest olive trees in the world still grow today in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
The flowering olive tree is a symbol of beauty and abundance in the Bible. The tree’s fruitfulness and ability to thrive suggests the model of a righteous person (Psalm 52:8; Hosea 14:6), whose children are described as “vigorous young olive trees” (Psalm 128:3, NLT). Olive oil was also used in the anointing and coronation of kings, making it an emblem of sovereignty.
Olive tree oil is symbolic of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, as it was used as the carrier for a mixture of spices that made up the holy anointing oil. In Zechariah 4, the prophet has a vision of two olive trees standing on either side of a solid gold lampstand. The olive trees supply the oil that fuels the lamps. The two olive trees represent Zerubbabel and Joshua, the governor and high priest. The Lord encourages them not to trust in financial or military resources, but in the power of God’s Holy Spirit working through them (verse 6). As in other Old Testament analogies, God’s Holy Spirit is represented by the oil of the olive tree.
The process by which olives are beaten and crushed to produce olive oil contains spiritual significance as well. Jesus Christ was beaten and crushed on the cross so that His Holy Spirit would be poured out on the church after His ascension to heaven. In essence, Jesus Christ is God’s olive tree, and the Holy Spirit, His olive oil. It is not mere coincidence that Christ’s agonized prayer, just before His arrest, occured in Gethsemane, a place of many olive trees and whose name means “olive press.”
God uses the imagery of an olive tree in Jeremiah 11:16–17 to remind His people of the covenant relationship He has with them. God’s people (the nation of Israel) are depicted as an olive tree and God as the farmer. He planted them as a beautiful olive tree but warned He would cut them down if they disobeyed His laws and worshiped false gods. The apostle Paul makes use of this imagery to teach a lesson to Gentile believers in Romans 11:17–24. Paul chooses the cultivated olive tree to portray Israel and the wild olive tree to represent Gentile believers. The cultivated olive tree is pruned and nurtured so that it bears much fruit. The fruitless, ineffective branches are trimmed and discarded, but the root remains intact. God has preserved the holy root of Israel and pruned off the worthless branches.
The Gentiles, represented by the wild olive tree in Romans 11, have been grafted into the cultivated olive root. As a wild olive tree, their root was weak. Their branches were incapable of bearing fruit until they were grafted into the nourishing, life-sustaining root of the cultivated olive tree. Gentile believers now share in Israel’s blessings, but Paul warns, “Do not boast that you are better than those branches. But if you do boast—you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you” (CSB). Paul wants Gentile believers to understand that they have not replaced Israel. God has done a beautiful thing for the Gentiles, but Israel is still God’s chosen nation and the source of the riches of salvation that the Gentiles now enjoy.
Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, is the root of Jesse, or the root of the cultivated olive tree. From Him, Israel and the Church draw their life.